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Shadows of a Nameless Fear  by Budgielover

(Author’s Note: At long last, I am happy to announce that my website has found a permanent home. This and all of my stories may be found at Stop in and see what’s new! (And advance chapters of this and other works in progress.)

Disclaimer: All original plots and original characters are the property of the author. The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien Enterprises, and New Line Cinemas and their licensees. These works were produced with admiration and respect, as fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, not for sale or profit. 

Chapter One - In the Halls of the King

The smallest Knight of Gondor threw up his hands in frustration. His eldest cousin was, without exception, the most irritating, infuriating, irrational hobbit in all of Middle-earth. Not to mention an exceptionally good hider. Pippin had looked every place he could think of, and had not been able to locate even one hair from the Ring-bearer’s woolly head.

Of course, Pippin, reflected, it was only due to Frodo—and Sam—that Middle-earth was still here to be infuriating in. The fact that Pippin was still alive he owed to his cousin, as well as his freedom, and every blooming flower and singing bird in Minas Tirith … or anywhere else in the world. With a sigh, Pippin sank down against the sun-warmed stone along the parapet’s guard walk, drew up his knees and cradled his chin on them.

“No luck?” Merry dropped opposite his cousin and leaned back against the wall of the great tower.

“No,” Pippin scowled, tugging at his uniform. “He’s found a good, deep hole this time.”

“Well, he’s got to turn up for this banquet. He’s the guest of honour, after all. Can’t have the guest of honour ducking out. And disobeying the King’s direct command to attend.”

“Tell him,” Pippin returned resentfully.

Merry crossed his arms and frowned, thinking. Having exhausted his own resources, Pippin left him to it. He took off his helmet and tilted his head up to watch the circling birds absently, so high above the city they looked like black dots. Like little currants in a scone, Pippin decided, rubbing his stomach. Teatime had been nearly two hours ago.




Pippin looked about them, confused. Their friend was nowhere in sight. “Where?”

Merry sprang to his feet, reaching across the walk to pull his cousin up with him. “We can’t find Frodo. We can find Sam. He’s in the Courtyard of the White Tree, helping lay out the new flowerbeds. We make Sam tell us where Frodo is.”

Pippin glanced over the edge of the parapet and hastily wrentched his gaze back to the solid wall of the tower behind Merry, fighting down a surge of dizziness. The Men labouring below them looked like ants. He couldn’t possibly pick out Sam from this height, anyway. Merry, he noted, had prudently stayed on the opposite side of the walk, as far away from the edge as he could.

“Maybe Sam doesn’t know,” Pippin ventured.


“How do we make Sam tell us?” Pippin asked, examining his arm where Merry had pinched.

“Well…” this query seemed to derail Merry’s train of thought. “We’re bigger than he is, now. And there’s two of us.”

Pippin considered this. “Do you want to try to force it out of him? You go right ahead. I’m very fond of having my arms attached to my body.”

Merry thought about that for a moment. “Right. Yes, you have a point.” He slid back down against the wall and hugged his knees. “We have looked everywhere Frodo might be—”

“His room, the library, the archives, baths, kitchens, courtyards and gardens, all the pantries, bakeries— “

Merry interrupted the list. “So we look where he might not be.” Pippin looked at him blankly. “We look the last place he would think we would think to look for him,” Merry elaborated, pleased with his own cleverness.

Pippin was silent for a moment, working that out. Then his brow furrowed with worry. “The Tombs of the Stewards,” he said softly.

* * *

Frodo looked up from the book he was reading to scowl at them. He was seated cross-legged on one of the great marble tombs, his back wedged against the carved effigy of a long-departed ruler of Gondor. Pippin squinted at the plaque bearing the long-dead Steward’s name and the years of his stewardship, but the words were obscured by dust and the passage of time. The tomb was quite far back along the long, silent corridor, and Pippin’s heart had sunk deeper the farther they were forced to go into this house of death. He would not have crossed the threshold, had not Merry been so certain they would find Frodo here.

He and Merry both had detoured around the scorch mark burned into the marble floor near the entrance; averting their eyes as they passed it. Scrubbing could not remove it and with all the demands on the city’s stonemasons, there had not been time to chip out the damaged marble and replace it with new. The floor would bear the stain of Denethor’s madness until the marble could be repaired. Pippin shuddered and Merry patted his arm reassuringly.

“Aragorn might have given us the freedom of the city, but why would Frodo choose this place?” Pippin whispered. “It is locked up and only the Lord of the City or those bearing the tokens of the tombs and tending the houses of the dead come here. I wasn’t sure they were going to let us in, despite the King’s command.”

“That is exactly why,” Merry replied.

Frodo watched them approach resignedly, balancing the huge, Man-sized book on his knees. He sat with his cloak tucked beneath him, and only a small lantern to provide illumination in the cold, gloomy hall. The light from the little lantern threw flickering shadows on the polished stone and Pippin bit his lip against memories of fire and desperate fear. Marble might be pretty, Pippin thought, unconsciously crowding closer to Merry, but it was cold. Cold against the feet and cold against the heart.

Frodo sighed and closed the book. “Found me, did you? Hopefully without enough time to dress for the banquet.”

“Wrong, Cousin!’ Merry replied cheerfully. “Come on, you’re caught. Let’s go.”

Frodo lay the book down and slid to the edge of the marble slab. With a push, he launched himself off the edge. Instead of landing on his feet, his legs buckled and Frodo fell heavily to his hands and knees, sprawling on the frigid floor with a stifled cry.

“Frodo! Are you all right?” Merry dashed to his side and fastened his hands around Frodo’s arms, crouching down next to him to raise Frodo up on his knees and cradle his cousin against his body. “You’re as cold as ice! How long have you been sitting here in this freezing place?”

Frodo did not reply for a moment. “I… I don’t know,” he murmured softly, leaning against Merry. Frodo was shivering, Pippin saw, and hurried to untie his cloak and drape it over his cousin.

“Have you had any tea?” Merry pressed. Frodo shook his head vaguely. “Luncheon? Elevenses? Second breakfast? Frodo, have you eaten at all today?”

“I… I don’t…”

“Foolish hobbit,” Merry scolded, exchanging a worried glance with Pippin over Frodo’s bowed head. “You shouldn’t have walked so far. Do you want to be taken back to the Houses of Healing? The Warden believes you left before you were strong enough, and I think I agree with him.” Frodo made some inarticulate denial, but he continued to tremble. Merry’s voice softened and he wrapped his arms around his cousin, careful of injuries not yet fully healed. “This marble must make those scars hurt, and it is glacial in here. Do you want to make yourself ill?”

Clicking his tongue disapprovingly, Merry slowly raised Frodo to his feet, keeping his arms tight around his cousin’s waist until Frodo could stand. Pippin edged under Frodo’s shoulder, having to bend slightly to do so. He could feel his cousin shivering through his jacket and both their cloaks, his bones seeming about to rattle out of his too-thin form. Frodo sagged against him for a moment then his back straightened and he stepped shakily away from his concerned kin.

“Cousin—” Pippin murmured, reaching out to steady him.

“Pip,” Merry said softly, “Go get someone to carry him. Is Beregond on duty?”

“I don’t need to be carried,” Frodo snapped. “I walked across Mordor, for stars’ sake! I think I can manage the road back.” He took a step past them and halted, swaying on his feet.

“Frodo!” Both young hobbits leaped forward and caught Frodo as he started to collapse. He hung in their arms for a moment, panting. “Ahhhhh,” Frodo moaned involuntarily.

“Forget Beregond, Pip,” Merry ordered his cousin. “Go straight to the Warden. Tell him we need a litter. Frodo’s going back to the Houses of Healing.”


Pippin glanced between them, obedience to both warring on his unhappy face. He drew away from Frodo and stood quivering, literally pulled between the two cousins he loved best. Seeing this, Frodo’s adamant expression softened and he leaned forward to place a trembling hand on Pippin’s shoulder.

“I am all right,” Frodo murmured. “I just sat too long in a cold place. Takes me a moment to warm up.” He shuddered deeply, then tried a smile. Pippin thought it looked ghastly. “You two cluck like a couple of old hens,” Frodo chuckled, starting to rub his fingers together to warm them. He gasped and jerked as the stub on his right hand stabbed agonizingly.

“Well, you are going to have a hot bath before dressing,” Merry said decisively, pretending not to have seen Frodo flinch. “And a little something strengthening before the banquet.”

“We’ll be late,” Frodo protested. “After tracking me down and hauling me off—against my will, I might add—I would think you would want to be on time.”

“They can wait,” Merry retorted, his tone almost angry. “They can all just bloody wait.”

Frodo smiled in spite of himself, and the pain-lines at the corners of his eyes eased. “Merry, don’t fuss. I am quite all right.” Still objecting, he accompanied his cousin out into the light, Merry’s strong arm around him.

Pippin darted back and retrieved the book, knowing that most uncharacteristically, Frodo had forgotten about it. He turned the heavy tome over in his hands and followed his cousins outside. By the shining light of the spring sun, he read the title embossed on the cover with a sinking heart, Funeral Customs of Gondor.

* * *

“I am not eating that,” Frodo muttered to Sam. The two Ring-bearers were seated on a high dais that raised them even with the Big People at the High Table. They sat at the right hand of the King, and next to them were seated two unusually small knights in the formal livery of Gondor and Rohan. On the other side of the King sat Gandalf, and Legolas and Gimli. The end seat next to Gimli was empty, the fine table service laid before it and its goblet filled. On the plate was a single white blossom, harvested from the White Tree in memory of the one who should have occupied this seat.

The banquet hall gleamed with the finest white linens (still smelling slightly of mothballs) and glittered with a table service of silver chased with gold. Sometime between the battle of Pelennor Fields and Aragorn’s triumphant entering of Minas Tirith, the King had found time to order that scaled-down knives and forks and spoons be made for the hobbits. Frodo used his beautifully detailed, custom-made fork to poke the quivering translucent blob on his plate.

“Me neither,” agreed Sam briefly, giving his own blob a poke.

Aragorn leaned slightly to his right, smiling at the Harad ambassador as he made a great show of admiring the disgusting thing on his plate. ”That is a sea slug, Frodo,” the King hissed from the side of his mouth. “It is considered the greatest of delicacies in the South. These were brought to Minas Tirith at enormous cost and effort to honour the Ring-bearers. Eat it.”

“I can see its innards,” Sam observed. “It looks like things are still moving in there. Are you sure it’s dead?”

Legolas leaned past Gandalf to study the delicacy on Aragorn’s plate. “I am happy that those … things … are so precious they are reserved for the Ring-bearers and the King,” the elf commented. “I am grateful not to be honoured so.” Gimli, at Legolas’ side, grunted agreement and took a swig from his goblet.

“Aye,” the dwarf agreed curtly. “We will suffer through with meat hot off the bone. You can have those—” a sharp elven elbow in the ribs made Gimli revise his description and also lower his voice, “—delicious-looking … morsels.”

Few of the feasters grasped why the King had desired the number of seats at his Table this night to be nine, but all those seated there understood. Between the talk and laughter, Aragorn’s eyes moved slowly over his friends, remembering and treasuring each face. They were all here, Aragorn thought, save one. He had not been able to lead one home. Yet his and Mithrandir’s goal had been accomplished. Feeling the King’s eyes upon him, Gandalf looked up and in those sparkling eyes the King saw both joy and pride. They had done it, he and Gandalf. What that they had set out to do, they had done.

A laugh from the table nearest the High Table caught his notice, and he smiled. Faramir was shaking his head, laughing at some comment of Prince Imrahil’s.The new Steward of Gondor was paying only intermittent attention to the conversations around him, preferring instead to stare blissfully at Éowyn of Rohan seated a few places down the table. The White Lady of Rohan was sitting one place down from Éomer King, who was mercilessly enjoying watching his sister’s cheeks colour with roses each time her gaze met with Faramir’s.

“You haven’t eaten yours,” Frodo commented, returning the King’s attention to the issue at hand by leaning over to look at Aragorn’s plate.

Aragorn flushed. “I am about to. I’m just working up my … er…”

“Nerve?” Frodo supplied.

“Appetite,” Aragorn said firmly. He grasped his knife and laid it against the shuddering mass. The hobbits watched attentively. The sharp knife split the external membrane and a gooey, slightly pink gel oozed out onto Aragorn’s plate. The King’s face paled.

“Go on then,” Frodo encouraged maliciously.

“You tried to get us to eat them bugs and bark enough times,” Sam commented. “Let’s see you put your money where your mouth is. Sir. Your Majesty.”

Aragorn watched the gel slither across his plate. It slopped against the rim and immediately began congealing. In a sudden, convulsive movement, he snapped to his feet with his hand around his goblet. “A toast!” he cried. “A toast to the saviours of Middle-earth! To the Ring-bearers!”

In one accord, the distinguished guests rose to their feet and raised their own goblets. “The Ring-bearers!” echoed the lords and ladies of Gondor, the Rohirric knights, the assorted ambassadors, emissaries and officials. The King raised his cup to his lips and drained the last of his wine. When he sat down again, there were three sea slugs on his plate. The Ring-bearers were busily applying themselves to their food.

“I’ll get you for this,” the King muttered under his breath as the ever-attentive serving staff poured him more wine. He smiled at the Ambassador again.

“You can try,” Frodo rejoined gleefully, then followed this challenge with a tremendous sneeze. “I beg your pardon!”

“Are you quite all right, Frodo?” asked Gandalf, leaning behind the King to gaze narrowly at the hobbit.

“He’s been sneezing and coughing ever since Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin brought him in,” Sam informed the wizard as Frodo was unable to reply, having buried his nose in a handkerchief.

“We found him in the Tombs of the Stewards,” Merry leaned forward slightly to whisper around the other diners. “He was half-frozen and I think he’s falling ill.”

Frodo coughed. “I am not! Merry, be quiet. Sam, you too.”

“He’s short-tempered,” Pippin observed from the safety of Sam’s far side. “He always gets quarrelsome when he’s getting sick.”

“Who is getting sick?” asked Arwen, her elven hearing easily allowing her to distinguish conversations held at the High Table amongst the babble of the noisy feast-hall. At her question, Elrond broke off his conversation with Prince Imrahil and leaned forward, his piercing gaze centred on the guest of honour.

“Pippin,” said Frodo quickly, pointing down the table.


“Frodo,” Gandalf confirmed. “Did you have your tonic today, my lad?”

“Pippin has been looking rather peaky,” Frodo continued, ignoring both Gandalf and that the leg of his chair was being kicked, the awkward assault hidden by the tablecloth. Sam was staring straight ahead with a fixed smile, determined to ignore the dispute between cousins. His chair rocked slightly as Pippin missed.

“I think he needs a tonic, Lord Elrond,” Frodo continued ingenuously. “The poor lad is—”

A sound to Frodo’s left made all conversation cease as they looked at the King. “After you make one for Aragorn,” Frodo continued. “Even a hungry hobbit has more sense than to eat that,” he whispered to Sam as the King gagged and frantically emptied his goblet.

* TBC *

Chapter Two - In the Rooms of a Ring-bearer

“You are just angry because Sam and I put those disgusting things on your plate and you had to eat them,” Frodo asserted. “I’m not taking any nasty potion because we bested you at the banquet.”

“Elrond is not sending a tonic for me to give to you because you played a trick on me, Frodo,” Aragorn replied with iron patience. His stomach chose that moment to roil unpleasantly, and Aragorn wondered if there wasn’t a small grain of truth in the hobbit’s accusation. If there was, he had no intention of admitting it. “I am giving it to you because you are running a temperature and you don’t look well.”

Frodo crossed his arms and straightened his shoulders, his back rigid against the soft pillows adorning his oversized bed as he glared at his friend. Refusing to be intimidated, Aragorn gazed back with one eyebrow slightly arched. “I knew you were not well when you left the banquet early. You never leave when the Elves are preparing to sing.”

Frodo stared implacably. “I am not sick. I want to get up.”

“No, Frodo,” the King said as patiently as he could. “It was most unwise of you to walk all the way to the Tombs of the Stewards today. The houses of the dead are no place for the living. Why did you go there?”

Frodo looked away. “I wanted a little peace and quiet.” Before Aragorn could question that, Frodo switched subjects. “You let Sam wander all over the city!” he flung at the King.

“Sam is wise enough to take care of himself, and does not seek to exceed his strength.” Aragorn settled himself at the hobbit’s bedside. “Merry told me you almost fell when you tried to stand. How long have you felt unwell?”

“I am in excellent health, thank you.”

Looking at the feverish hobbit, Aragorn feared that Merry was right and Frodo had taken ill from his unauthorized excursion beyond the palace gates. Frodo was very pale except for two bright red spots burning in his cheeks, and he was perspiring and shivering both. Aragorn had ordered the fire built up in the hobbit’s apartment and now the flames crackled and snapped like a miniature bonfire. And still Frodo trembled, and fought to conceal it. The King’s gaze darkened as Frodo sniffed and fought back a cough.

“You are not,” Aragorn contradicted flatly. “You are certainly catching a cold, at least.” Frodo glared. Seeing he would receive no concession, Aragorn sighed and continued, “I have an ointment for the scars that will help ease their aching. What Elrond is sending is a—"

“Strengthening cordial or tonic,” the hobbit interrupted in a weary voice, closing his eyes, “and I’m not going to take it. I am fine. I would be better if you would leave and let me get some sleep.”

“Merry told me they found you sitting on a tomb,” Aragorn said, ignoring the suggestion. “And Pippin said you were reading a book on burial customs. Why?”

Frodo did not answer for a moment. When he did, his voice was level. “I am in a new place. I wished to learn about Gondorian customs.”

“Funeral customs?” Frodo’s eyes opened at Aragorn’s tone, and the King was aware his voice had sharpened with worry. He tried to soften it. “Why, Frodo?”

“It is of no importance. I do not wish to speak of it.” Frodo shrugged, apparently involved in looking at the crackling flames.

“Why?” Aragorn persisted, aware that he could awaken that Baggins stubbornness all too easily. All hobbits were obstinate, the King had decided long ago, but Frodo’s mule-headedness was becoming legendary. He would get nothing from the hobbit that Frodo was not willing to give him. Frodo remained silent.

Aragorn reflected dourly that he could not have the saviour of Middle-earth whipped. The people of Minas Tirith would never allow it, to say nothing of Sam and Frodo’s cousins and the other members of the Fellowship. Gandalf would understand, though… With an effort, he pulled his attention back to the matter at hand. Very well, then. None of the Company were present to defend the Ring-bearer from his healer, and Frodo could scarcely refuse him.

He withdrew from the pocket of his formal robes a small leather sack. Frodo made a soft sound of disgust, but chose to forgo the battle when Aragorn merely looked at him. “All right, all right,” the hobbit admitted. “Putting those sickening things on your plate was an unkind thing to do. I suppose I do owe you for that. I will not fight you.”

“Thank you, Frodo.” Aragorn squeezed out a thin line of cream onto his finger before the hobbit could change his mind. “Turn over, please.” With a grimace, Frodo did, nestling into the pillows on his stomach and reaching up to hold up his hair obediently out of the way.

Aragorn rubbed the salve over the dark, puckered pit at the back of Frodo’s neck, careful not to press too hard. The spider-bite had discoloured the skin as well as roughened it, but Frodo claimed it no longer hurt. Aragorn did not doubt that this was why Frodo was letting his hair grow; the dark curls now tumbled past his shoulders. Sam had clucked his disapproval and made several pointed suggestions, but Frodo ignored him. Aragorn understood. The hobbit was not vain, but anyone would seek to cover such a disfigurement.

Frodo flipped back over and allowed him to rub cream into the small, shiny scars where Frodo’s mithril mail had been forced into his chest by the Cave Troll’s spear. The spear point was still evident as a triangular indentation in the hobbit’s chest, with smaller scars surrounding it where the mail had cut. Injuries long healed.

The savaged hand was not healed. Frodo spread his fingers helpfully but Aragorn felt the hobbit tense as he gathered the small hand into his own. “Still tender?” he asked.

“Yes. I keep starting to do the simplest things, and it feels like a knife is driven into my hand. I suppose it will toughen with time.” Aragorn examined the knitting wound carefully, conscious always of how easy it was for infection to set into the wound of an amputation. The new skin was still red over the stub, thin and fragile. But there were no signs of infection … this was not the source of the fever plaguing the hobbit, then. Frodo sighed in relief and sagged back against the pillows as Aragorn released him.

Last he set the salve against the cold, white mark on the hobbit’s shoulder and began to rub it in as gently as he could. The Morgul-wound was still cold to the touch, a strange white scar, and Frodo turned his head away as Aragorn examined it, suddenly anxious and withdrawn. “Relax, my friend,” Aragorn murmured. “I am trying not to hurt you.”

“I know,” Frodo whispered back. “I just hate to have it touched. I always feel…”

“What?” Aragorn pressed gently. He raised his other hand to lay it over the hobbit’s forehead. It was hotter than it had been. The fever was rising. Frodo closed his eyes for a moment, savouring the coolness against his brow. Then he grimaced, reluctantly answering the question put to him.

“The pain never leaves it completely. I am aware of it, always. I do not want anyone to contaminate himself by touching it.”

“Contaminate?” Aragorn was confused. “Frodo, such a wound is not contagious.”

“The evil within it is,” the hobbit whispered.

Ah, thought the King. Now we come to it. “Frodo,” Aragorn began, “you must not—” The hobbit averted his face.

Aragorn leaned across the bed, shifting into Frodo’s field of vision, refusing to be ignored. “Frodo, talk to me— please. That you are in pain from more than physical wounds is obvious to me, and to those who love you. Sam has spoken to me, as have Merry and Pippin. They know that some unnamed hurt or fear gnaws at you.” 

Frodo’s face had gone still and remote, his indignation at the forced medical attention washing from him. Aragorn could almost see doors clanging shut behind those extraordinary eyes.

“Gandalf has seen it, too, Frodo. As have I, and Legolas and Gimli and those who have come to know and love you. Why are you walling yourself away from us?” Frodo was rigid, trembling with suppressed emotion.

A knock at the door interrupted them. Aragorn squeezed the hobbit’s shoulder, then rose and accepted a silver tray from a servant. Upon it sat a delicate vial, stoppered and sealed, filled with lavender liquid. The servant bowed and left.

“Elrond’s tonic,” Aragorn said with satisfaction, resolving to continue their conversation after the tonic had been downed, whether Frodo wished to or not. He broke the seal and extended the graceful bottle towards his patient. “This will make you feel better, my friend.”

“I assure you it will not,” Frodo replied, inching up apprehensively on the bed, his eyes locked on the tonic as it were poisonous. “Truly, Aragorn. I speak from experience.”

“Frodo, I do not wish to argue with you. Take it or I will ensure that you take it.” 

Frodo’s eyes narrowed as the King held out the vial.

* * *
The King of the West leaned against the outside of the closed door and exhaled explosively.

Gandalf pulled the pipe from his mouth and blew a smoke ring, watching it idly as it slowly dissipated in the still air of the corridor. “How is he?”

“Infuriating,” Aragorn said briefly. “It is a battle to treat his wounds and a war to make him take his medicine. I encountered less opposition on Pelennor Field.” Aragorn sighed and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “He is also falling ill, though he denies it. His temperature is rising rapidly and he is becoming confused.”

“He is in pain,” the wizard stated softly.

Some of the irritation went out of the King’s face. “Yes. His wounds are closing, though their healing is inhibited by a body weakened by long deprivation and toil. He will heal, given time. I am more concerned about his state of mind.”

“It was an impossible thing we asked of him,” Gandalf said. “That he succeeded was beyond all expectation.”

“I don’t think he really believes it is over,” interrupted a soft voice. The King and the wizard turned towards it, and three small forms detached themselves from the shadows of the corridor and moved soundlessly towards them.

“Hobbits,” sighed Gandalf. “I should ask the King to issue a decree that all of them be required to wear bells.”

“Let us move away from the door,” Aragorn murmured. “I do not want our voices to disturb him.” The five walked some way down the hall, where a bend of the corridor would muffle their conversation.

“He won’t talk to us,” Merry continued as the other two nodded in sorrowful agreement. “He just says it was awful and he doesn’t want to remember it.”  

“What then shall we do?” asked the King. “He cannot continue to bottle up this poison inside of himself. It is eating at him, slowing his recovery, and now I fear it is making him truly ill.”

“Get him drunk?” Pippin suggested tentatively.

“He’ll just get soppy and go to sleep,” Merry growled. “When Frodo makes up his mind about something, there isn’t a force on earth that will make him change his mind. Well, except…” the others looked at him expectantly, “…except for Mum.” Seeing the slight smile curving Aragorn’s lips, Merry flushed. “Look, you don’t know my mother.”

“I would not care to cross Esmeralda Brandybuck,” Gandalf said briefly. “However, as we do not have the time to send for said lady, we will have to deal with Frodo’s reticence ourselves. Perhaps he could be enticed into a riddle-game, with the forfeit—”

“Begging your pardon, sirs,” Sam broke in, “but you oughtn’t be talking about forcing Mr. Frodo to do anything. He’ll talk or he’ll not, as he feels like it. I’m hoping he’ll talk to Mr. Bilbo when we get back to Rivendell,” he added in a softer voice.

“He needs to talk to someone who wasn’t there … who didn’t see … someone who can listen to him without having to battle his own nightmares.” Sam was staring at the stone floor, not meeting any of their eyes. “Who didn’t see him when things were so bad, or after, after we’d been rescued. Who saw what that evil thing did to him. He can’t talk to someone who pities him, sirs. Mr. Frodo … well, he can’t…” Sam broke off suddenly and turned away from them, tears glittering in his brown eyes. Wordlessly, Pippin wrapped his arms around his friend and hugged him.

The Companions looked at each other silently. “Perhaps you know him best, Samwise,” Gandalf said gently, “but we all love him. He was better at first, but now he is slipping away from us. Just a little, day by day. If we do not excise this infection from his soul, he may well die of it.”

“But what are we going to do?” Pippin asked. “How can we help him?”

“Give him the chance to put his roots back in the soil,” Sam said unexpectedly. “Let him out where the sun can shine on his face. Hobbits aren’t made to live in stone towers with no grass beneath our feet.”

“Let him see the world he saved,” Merry continued with a nod, “instead of keeping him here in the palace. Stone walls are no protection against dreadful memories. Let us take him into Minas Tirith, and see the children playing and the gardens starting to bloom and the life returning to the city and the people.”

Aragorn nodded slowly. “I will speak with Éomer and ask he release you from duty, Merry. Pippin, tell Beregond it is my wish. Sam…”

Sam grinned at him crookedly. “I don’t answer to no one but Mr. Frodo, sir.”

Aragorn smiled at the hobbit. “I know that, Sam.” 

“I’ll stay with him tonight, sir, if you don’t mind,” Sam answered. “I just want to keep an eye on him.”

“I should insist he return to the Houses of Healing,” Aragorn answered slowly. “But he would not be comfortable there, and there is really nothing the House could do for him there that Sam cannot do here. I will order that cool cloths and ice be sent to you, Sam, and all else you might need.”

“May we say goodnight?” Pippin asked, suddenly sounding much younger than his years.

“Only if he is still awake,” Aragorn said, motioning them back around the corner. “Quietly now. High fever can cause the sufferer to either sleep heavily or eschew sleep.” Aragorn opened the door slowly and peered into the dimly-lit room. “If he sleeps, I do not want—” 

The bed was empty, the covers kicked to the floor. The five of them stared about the unoccupied room, as if Frodo might suddenly pop from the wardrobe or the blanket press to surprise them. “No,” whispered Merry. “Oh, no. No no no…”

“We—We’ve got to find him! I’ll rouse the Guard!” Pippin whirled to run from the room. Quick as thought, Gandalf caught his shoulder and dragged him back.

“Think for a moment, Peregrin Took! How do you think Frodo would react to unfamiliar Men searching for him, after he spent months running and hiding and being hunted? He is confused and ill. If we rouse the Guard, he will conceal himself. We might drive him even farther from us.”

“I’ll fetch Legolas,” Merry said. “Sam, you find Gimli. Tell him we need them to search for Frodo, but not to frighten him. Pippin, check our rooms—he might have gone there looking for us. Go, lads!”

The hobbits raced down the hall, their going just as silent as their coming. Aragorn groaned, feeling the day’s weariness descend on him suddenly as if a lead weight. “Where shall we seek him? We cannot count on sound to betray a hobbit. We could walk right by him and never see him, did he wish it.”

“We must find him,” Gandalf said tensely. “He will not last long in his condition. And there are other dangers out there than exposure. He could fall down a flight of stairs, or off a balustrade, or what if the rumours we heard are true—“

“Gandalf! Go!

* TBC *

Chapter Three - Under a Vault of Stars

It seemed to Frodo that he felt much too hot, and longed for nothing more than to feel the cool wind on his face. He pulled fretfully at his dressing gown, sticky with perspiration. He would like to be rid of it, but his gentlehobbit upbringing would not permit it. A gentlehobbit did not run about in ‘naught but his nightshirt,’ as Sam would say. Frodo smiled, thinking of his friend’s indignation should Sam see him wandering the cold marble halls of the palace at this hour. Well, he would go out for a sniff of air and look at the stars before returning to bed. His head would be clearer, then.

It was very late and the corridors were almost deserted. Even where they were not, few of the courtiers and ladies and servants still about noticed the small, silent form drifting soundlessly past them, hidden by an unobtrusiveness that seemed almost magic. Frodo was not consciously aware of avoiding the Big Folk; he simply did not want to be stopped and questioned and have to respond articulately and politely, especially when his head throbbed so. Suddenly the corridor swam before him and he stumbled, catching himself against the wall. He sagged against it, gasping. The whole palace seemed to dip and sway and Frodo closed his eyes, fighting a surge of nausea.

His eyes had begun to burn and his head to pound, and he felt as if he could not get a breath of air inside these stone walls. They seemed about to close upon him, wavering when he tried to focus on them. He felt as if he were underground, but this great white citadel did not impart the warmth and comfort of a hobbit-hole. He felt very confused, and his desire to see the clean stars above him grew with each stumbling step.

He would sit on the parapet and admire the stars, then he would return to his room. He truly did feel very tired, and oddly thirsty. Just sit in the cold night air for a few minutes, until he felt better…

* * *
The White Wizard stumbled to a halt in the deserted hallway, his breath coming in great gasps. “Hobbits,” Gandalf muttered. “I’m too old for this.” In his initial rush of fear for his friend, he had forgotten that he had more efficient ways of searching than rushing blindly through corridors and peering into any alcove that might hide a semi-delirious hobbit. Panting, he leaned against his staff for a moment, then pulled himself up straight and closed his eyes.

Gandalf inhaled deeply, summoning his Power. He sent it searching from him, seeking the bright-burning spark of life that was Frodo. His Power wafted out from him, searching … and slammed into stone. Gandalf staggered, surprised and caught off guard. Solid stone … marble and rock. Too thick. Minas Tirith was made of stone, layer upon layer of it. All his power would avail him nothing. Biting down on an exasperated curse, he drew another breath and resumed searching.

* * *

“Nothing,” Legolas replied shortly. “I have searched the mid-levels of the palace, and Gimli has taken the lower floors. It is possible he slipped by us and into the city, but I do not think so. Frodo has not gone out much, and the twisting lanes of the city would confuse him. He is fevered and ill, and would stay in familiar surroundings. I think he would go up.”

“I also,” Aragorn agreed. “Frodo is less uncomfortable with heights than most hobbits, and I know the stars call to him. He often sought comfort in them during our Quest.”

Legolas’ gaze fastened on the stairs. “Up, then. I will send word to Gimli and the others.”

* * * 
It was so much cooler here. Frodo pushed his sweaty hair out of his eyes and leaned against the jamb of the battlements doorway, the cool breeze caressing his face. The dizziness had grown worse on the stairs, and were not hobbits so sure-footed, he might well have taken a tumble. Twice he had been forced to sit down on the stairs until the worst of the faintness passed.

The guard walk was deserted. Frodo knew a watch was still kept from the walls, for not every Orc and evil thing that had invaded Minas Tirith during the battle had been accounted for. He had heard tales of foul creatures hiding in the dark, rubble-strewn shambles of destroyed houses and shops, awaiting their chance to burst forth to wreak havoc, either in escape attempts or in simple evil. He must have just missed the guard, and wondered how long it would be until the soldier’s rounds disrupted his peace.

The night air eased the intolerable heat within him, and the bright clear stars calmed him. He wandered across the walk to lean against one of the great stone blocks lining the edge of the parapet—what had Pip called them? Merlons? Big People had such odd names for things.

Thus supported by stone that thankfully seemed to move very little, he could raise his face to the sky and breathe easy at last. The constellations above him were as dear as old friends. They reminded him of evenings spent lying on his back on The Hill, watching the stars through the leaves of the roof tree. He would spend hours so, wrapped in quilts and dreaming of Adventure, until Bilbo would call him in. The stars twinkled at him cheerfully, teasing him into wondering, as he had so often as a child, if he could reach out and sweep them into his hand.

It has been one of his favourite games. He had faint memories of standing in the early evenings with his mother, of having her reach down to gather him up and hold him aloft. “Touch the stars, my darling! Catch one and all your dreams will come true.” His father would laugh and take the tiny hobbit-child from Primula, to sit Frodo on his shoulders. “There,” his father would say. “Now my little lad is high enough to reach his star.”

Those old memories seemed to soothe his pounding headache somewhat. Crossing his arms, he leaned more heavily against the merlon, a faint smile on his face. The smile turned to startlement when he thought the block shifted slightly, causing him to lurch against it. He gave it an accusing glare.

A small part of him wondered if he might at last succeed, if he just tried hard enough. If I stand on my tip-toes and reach as hard as I can, perhaps I can capture a star… He would be closer if he climbed up on the merlon. Vaguely, he recalled Pippin telling him the Guards’ archers rained arrows down on the enemy from the gaps between the blocks during the battle, but that thought was disquieting and he let it slip from him. With some effort, he managed to scramble up on the huge stone block, tearing his nightshirt in the process. But he stood that much closer to the stars.


Frodo turned, his dressing gown blowing about him. “Hullo, Gandalf. Did you come out for a sniff of air, too?” Frodo blinked absently at the blurred forms standing frozen in the doorway, squinting to make them out in the darkness. The torches illuminating the stairs behind them seemed very bright and the light hurt his eyes. He rubbed them, wishing they would not burn so painfully.

“Frodo, get down off that stone and come here.”

“I don’t want to,” Frodo returned, a slight petulance in his voice. “It is too close in there, and it makes my head ache. It is so much nicer out here.” He turned away from the others and took a step closer to the edge. If it had not been so utterly silent on the parapet, none would have heard the slight rattling sound, nor traced the sound to the small trail of small stones tumbling from the base of the merlon into the black drop of night.

“The stone—” A hand wrapped across Pippin’s mouth, silencing the tweenager. Merry moved from behind him onto the guard walk.

“You’ve got to get him off it!” Merry whispered. “It will go any second!” Frodo had resumed staring at the stars, apparently entranced by the twinkling lights.  

“Stand still,” Aragorn commanded when Gandalf would have bodily pushed past him. “Do not frighten him.”

“Frodo my lad,” Gandalf said tightly, “come here now. Come to me, my lad.”

“Aren’t the stars lovely tonight?” Frodo asked. “They look almost close enough to touch.”

“Yes,” the wizard agreed, daring a step closer. “But it is very cold and late, and we should go in.”

“Do you think they watch us?” the hobbit asked nonsensically. One hand came up to scratch absently at his neck, and in the dim light, the watchers could see little lines of shining darkness between the white scars that formed a chain around his throat. Pippin made a faint whimper of grief, tears glittering in his eyes. “Gollum thought so, you know,” Frodo continued in a dreamy voice. “He would cringe and whine, hiding his head with his hands. His poor, broken hands…”

“Frodo Baggins,” Gandalf said urgently. “Step away from the edge. Come here at once.”

Frodo shivered and half-turned, but it seemed he forgot the wizard’s words almost as soon as they were uttered. His movement caused another shifting of the block, sending a louder rattle of damaged support stones into the dark. The merlon titled, causing him to step back a pace. The stone ground again and settled.

“Let me try,” Sam whispered. “Mr. Frodo,” Sam called casually. “Mr. Bilbo wants me to call you in, sir. Mr. Bilbo wants you.”

“Bilbo?” Frodo raised a hand to his head, rubbing at the back of his neck. “How my head aches! Tell him I shall come in presently, Sam. I just … I just want to look at the stars a bit.”

The pounding of heavy boots behind them announced Gimli’s arrival. Before they could counsel him to silence, he was outdistanced by Legolas. The elf sprang over the threshold and slid to a halt several feet forward on the walk, one of his long knives in his hands. He saw the hobbit swaying on edge of the block and froze, the starlight gleaming in his shocked eyes.

With an explosive puff, Gimli pulled up behind him. “Why is everyone standing in the doorway—”

“Gimli,” Legolas said, standing very still.

“Oh.” The dwarf’s eyes grew round. “Oh, no.” 

“Do something!” Merry hissed. “Aragorn, do something!”

“If we startle or frighten him, he might step forward,” Aragorn whispered back. “He does not know where he is.” Aragorn drew in a great breath of air, struggling for calm. “Legolas?”

The elf did not reply or turn towards him, but one delicately pointed ear tilted backward.

“Can you seize him?”

They could not see Legolas’ face, but they knew his eyes were measuring the width of the guard walk between himself and Frodo. Moving with infinitesimal slowness, he sheathed the knife and stood with his hands empty. “He is one step from the edge,” the elf’s faint voice drifted back to them. He was silent for a moment. “No. Even I do not have such speed.”

Merry’s hand clamped on Pippin’s arm, and already overwrought, the tweenager squeaked loudly.

Frodo stopped looking up and he half-turned towards them, a frown on his face. His eyes roved over them, but they might have been trees or rocks for all he seemed to recognize them. He stared directly at them, brows quirked, a puzzled expression on his face. Merry’s eyes narrowed, then flared with hope. “Call him, Pip,” he whispered in his cousin’s ear. “Let him hear your voice.”

Pippin did, his voice shrill and frightened. “Frodo! Frodo!”

The effect on Frodo was immediate. He spun around on the parapet, ignoring the loose rubble beneath him that rattled into the next layer of the city, hundreds of feet below him. “Pippin! Pip-lad, what is it?”

When Pippin would have stepped forward, Merry pulled him back into the shadows outside the doorway. “Call him again! And make your voice high, like when you were a little lad!”

Pippin did, a sob ending his cry. Frodo looked about wildly. “Pippin! Are you hurt? Where are you, lad?”

“Here, Frodo,” Pippin wailed, “Help! Help!”

Frodo flung himself off the block and raced towards the sobs. His backward kick provided the crumbling stone the small impetus it needed. It slid from its moorings and fell into the night. Frodo did not even notice it. He had not gone four paces before slender arms caught him and he was lifted into the air. Panic slashed through him. I won’t be taken again! Not again! He cried out, terror and rage overwhelming him as the memory of unyielding arms lifting him and crushing him and throwing him to the ground drowned out the distant cries of “Master!” and “Frodo! Frodo!” He kicked furiously, trying to fight, and had the brief satisfaction of hearing his captor grunt in pain. But the arms only tightened around him. Pain rocketed through his head and he knew no more.

* * *
Aragorn closed the door gently. “He is sleeping,” he reported to the anxious hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship waiting on the other side. “Gandalf and Elrond and Sam will stay with him.”

“How is he?” Gimli asked.

“His fever is down. Elrond is getting water into him, and tonics. At least Frodo cannot protest that, as he is unconscious.” The faint flicker of humour in his eyes faded. “Elrond says that he will sleep for many hours.” Aragorn leaned against the wall, exhausted. “Such confusion is not unknown in high fever. I should have been watching him.”

“Why did he do that? Stand right on the edge like that?”

“He was ill and befuddled, and did not know where he was, Pippin,” Aragorn soothed the distressed tweenager. “He did not know he was standing inches from death.”

“Where he was,” Merry said grimly, “was about to step off a parapet. On a block that must have been damaged in the battle and was about to crumble off at any moment. Why would he do such a thing, Aragorn? Was he trying to kill himself?”

Pippin choked, shoving a fist into his mouth to stifle the sob that rose in his throat. For once, Merry did not immediately move to comfort him but only stood staring up at the former Ranger, tears glittering in his eyes but his face set with something like anger.

“Not consciously,” Aragorn replied slowly. “His body is healing, as much as it can after the ill done to him. This sickness of the mind has been festering in him for some time. We have all tried to ease him, to no avail. What he suffered in bearing the Ring to its destruction was a horrible thing, Merry. So horrible that we can never really understand it.”

“You did this to him.” The anger on Merry’s face was a frightening thing. “All of you. You Big People. You got him to do what you could not do yourselves. And it broke him, and you can’t put him back together.”

The others gaped at him, Pippin included. Legolas was utterly still, while Gimli’s mouth hung open. “Merry, you don’t mean that … He doesn’t mean that,” Pippin appealed to the shocked faces around him.

Merry buried his face in his hands, shaking, but when he looked up, his face was free of tears. “I do mean it … and I don’t. I know you didn’t force him to do it, and only someone as strong and pure and loving as Frodo could have succeeded.” His shoulders sagged a little more. “I know you didn’t want him to go through that, but someone had to do it, and Frodo was the best choice. But a part of me won’t ever forgive you for making this happen to him.”

Merry whirled and fled down the hallway.

* TBC * 

Chapter Four – On the Streets of the City

Oh, that was better. Crisp, cool sheets and warm blankets and a soft pillow under his head. Much better than a throbbing head and aching neck and burning eyes and sweaty, sticky clothes. Last night was a blur of pain and confusing events, but he knew he had been sick. Frodo yawned and stretched luxuriously, ignoring the light from his small window as it warmed his eyelids, disinclined to wake up.

Odd dreams he’d been having. Holding a handful of stars, and Gandalf ordering him about (nothing new about that), and little Pippin-lad crying. A wonder that he’d got any rest, with such dreams tromping like Oliphaunts through his sleeping mind.

He heard a faint rustle and frowned in puzzlement. Slowly his eyes opened. Sam was sitting—no, sleeping, with his feet up on the end of Frodo’s bed, slumped down in a chair. He was still fully dressed and looked uncomfortable.

“Good morning,” said a soft, well-loved voice. “Feeling better?”

Oh, dear. It must have been bad for Gandalf to stay the night. “Hullo,” he said hesitantly to the large form quietly smoking its pipe in the morning sun.

“Mr. Frodo?” Sam was awake and peering at him blearily. He quickly swung his feet off the bed and poured his master a cup of water, sliding an arm under Frodo’s shoulders to lift him to drink.

“I’m all right, Sam,” Frodo told him reassuringly, though he wasn’t entirely sure of the fact. What had happened last night? The banquet—yes—his and Sam’s entirely unfair trick on Aragorn… “Um. How is the King today?”

“Do not worry, Frodo,” Gandalf chuckled. “Rangers, of necessity, have developed strong stomachs. It would take more than one Haradian sea slug to sicken Aragorn.”

“How ‘bout three?” Sam whispered to Frodo as he eased him back down onto the bed and pulled up the covers.

“We are more concerned about you, my friend. How do you feel?”

“Tired,” Frodo admitted after a moment’s evaluation. “And very stiff.”

“Well,” Gandalf said grandly, “I have the remedy for that. After you have eaten your breakfasts, Merry and Pippin are going to escort you on a tour of Minas Tirith.” He smiled at the hobbit’s delighted expression.

“So I’m to be allowed out?” Frodo asked gleefully . “With Sam? And Merry and Pip?”

“As if this poor city hasn’t suffered enough damage,” Gandalf growled. “Prince Faramir will escort you all and act as guide. He has been instructed not to put up with any begging, pouting, trickery, or threats.”

“Are Legolas and Gimli to come?” Frodo asked hopefully.

“Legolas and Gimli would no doubt appreciate a little break, but each has duties. Gimli is needed to assess the damage a great stone made as it fell last night. It smashed into a lower level of the city, causing much damage but fortunately hurt no one.” The wizard gazed keenly at Frodo, who nodded in some confusion. Repairs were being made all over the city and he understood that Gimli’s expertise was needed. “Legolas is supervising the moving of several trees from the parks to safeguard them during repair.”

Though disappointed his friends would not be coming, Frodo was overjoyed with the promised freedom. He was a little apprehensive about Faramir accompanying them as he did not know the Steward of Gordor-now-royal Prince well. Pippin practically worshipped him, though. Well, for a chance to get out and see Minas Tirith, he would tolerate a nurse-maid.

* * *

“But is he strong enough?” Aragorn worried, shifting uncomfortably on his throne. As magnificent as the Royal Seat was, it was not very uncomfortable. And all those steps up to it limited the number of people he could speak with at once, as well as sheltering their conversations from those below. Perhaps, he thought upon reflection, it had been designed so.

“You cannot keep him cooped up in the palace,” Gandalf admonished him. “And you cannot go back on your word. I have already told him he may explore the city.”

The King gave him a look. “There are other dangers out there than over-doing,” he said grimly. “Parts of the city are not safe; either due to damaged buildings or worse. As that merlon on the guard walk showed.”

“We shall be sure to advise Frodo not to enter any buildings that look like they might be about to collapse. As for the other dangers—”

“That is why you are sending Prince Faramir, is it not?” Elrond approached, footfalls making no sound on the gleaming marble. Legolas walked at his side, his usually graceful posture somewhat rigid.

“Yes,” Aragorn sighed. “Faramir will keep them safe. How is Frodo, Elrond?”

“Recovering. These hobbits mend quickly, as we have seen before. A day spent outside will be good for him, as long as young Frodo does not tire himself too much.”

“And Legolas?”

“Unharmed,” the Elf-lord replied. “A hobbit-kick can break bones or rupture organs. But Legolas is a young Elf, and Frodo did not truly mean him harm. It was a good kick, however.”

“I have never been attacked by a hobbit before,” Legolas mused, rubbing his stomach carefully. “I shall have to treat those large, hairy feet with more respect.”

“Wait until you have been attacked by several of them,” the King responded gloomily. “Who are genuinely trying to hurt you. Frodo was just trying to get away.”

“You have not told him he kicked me, have you?”

“No. He does not remember, and it would avail us nothing to tell him. He would be mortified by his actions last night.”

“I hope Faramir is prepared for this,” Gandalf muttered under his breath.

* * *

“This is one of our marketplaces,” Faramir said with a nod to a man who had bowed to him. Frodo looked about appreciatively. The walk down from the palace had not been long, but he was happy to slow for a few moments. “As the city is built on seven levels, most of our homes and shops line the central road,” the man continued. “This area is renown for its bakeries and—“

“Master Peregrin! Master Peregrin!” the hails seemed to come from all quarters. Frodo tensed but Pippin was grinning from ear to ear. Leaving the others, he sauntered up to a group of merchants lining the street and began to greet each by name, bowing and saluting.

“Watch this,” Merry murmured in Frodo’s ear, laughing. Sam rolled his eyes. The Big Folk were pressing treats and sweets and little tidbits upon Pippin, much to the young hobbit’s appreciation. “The missus sends this, sir. She’s proud of her ginger biscuits and would like your opinion.” And “Here, son. Try these apples. Best of my tree, they are.” And “My husband and I were hoping you’d come by today, Master Pippin. We saved these sticky buns just for you.”

As Frodo watched in disbelief, Pippin was piled with so many sweets and treats he could scarcely walk. He accepted each little gift with heartfelt thanks, and beamed back at the circle of charmed, happy faces shining at him. Frodo turned to Merry for an explanation. Merry grimaced, but his eyes were glowing with pride. “He’s their Periannath,” Merry said. “It means ‘Prince of the Halflings.’ Or something like that.” At Frodo’s raised eyebrows, he grinned. “And before you jump down Pippin’s throat, he never called himself that. They did. Doesn’t he look it, though?”

Frodo had to admit that Pippin did indeed look it. His uniform was astonishingly unwrinkled and clean, and the White Tree embroidered on the surcoat gleamed in the sun. His sword and scabbard shone with care and his eyes sparkled just as brightly as he graciously thanked each person.

“Aye, he’ll make a fine Thain someday,” Sam murmured, his face just as proud as Merry’s.

“Pippin often volunteers to drive one of the carts when the Guards go on their gathering-rounds,” Faramir added with a laugh. “This is one of the convoy’s stops. I now see why he is so eager to help.”

“Good day to you, Master Meriadoc!” said one of the shopkeepers, pressing a handkerchief of scones upon Merry. “Who are—” A young girl stood up on her tiptoes and whispered in the man’s ear.

Oh,” he said. “Forgive us, lord. We haven’t seen you before. You honour us with your presence, sir.” He bowed deeply, and beside him, the girl curtsied.

“The Ring-bearer, the Ring-bearer,” the whispers began. Frodo could feel them staring at him, staring at his hand, staring at his face. His head began to pound. It seemed that all their eyes were suddenly upon him. The awe and gratitude in their gazes made his knees weaken and his heart falter. The cool spring sun seemed suddenly unbearably hot. They were bowing to him, all of them. Spots swam before his eyes.

“It’s the sun,” Merry was explaining to the anxious people, “he’s not used to it. The King’s been keeping him close while he recovered. Too close, if you ask me.”

A hand descended on his shoulder, and Faramir was speaking to the crowd. They parted before him respectfully and Frodo was propelled gently forward. Sam was saying something, but Frodo could not quite make out the words. He was hustled into the shade and through a doorway and seated at a trestle table, his legs dangling. An inn or tavern?

The news that the Ring-bearer was in the city spread like wildfire. People lined up at the windows to stare at Frodo, though none were impolite enough to force themselves upon him. A large, beefy man hurried forward and closed the shutters, muttering, “Let the lord have some peace, friends. You can all thank him another time.” His face burning, Frodo stared straight ahead. When the last of the shutters were closed, he slumped forward and buried his head in his hands, trembling.

The man turned to them and bowed so low the fringe of hair remaining on his head flopped forward. “Please sirs, sit. Have a drink and rest a bit. I’m Mikah, milord. It’d be my honour if you’d have a drink here, milord.” Five ales appeared magically, Frodo’s in a finely decorated stein that was no doubt the pride of the pub.

“That is quite enough for today, Master Frodo,” Faramir told the hobbit firmly. “I will not risk being turned into a toad if I bring you back exhausted. Mithrandir made himself very clear on that subject.” He looked at the hobbit anxiously.

Frodo nodded slowly, struggling to hide his weariness. “Give me a few minutes and let me finish my ale, and I will be ready to walk back.”

“I think it best if I carry you back.” Frodo stiffened, and Sam winced. Sitting on either side of Faramir, Merry and Pippin tried to unobtrusively inch away from the soon-to-be unfortunate Man.

“Prince Faramir,” Frodo began evenly, “if you think— “

“Get him a sedan chair,” Merry interrupted, obviously wishing to avoid what promised to be a battle to the death. Sam frowned uncomprehendingly. “It’s a chair that’s carried on poles by four bearers. The lords and ladies use them on the streets all the time.”

Faramir had caught on by now. He nodded quickly. “Excellent idea, Merry.” Turning back to Frodo, he said, “Please understand, Ring-bearer, that my people are excited to see you and express their gratitude at last. They do not mean to intrude upon you; they simply wish to thank you. But such situations can turn so easily into chaos. It would be safer for the people if you were conducted back to the palace in a sedan chair. Will that be acceptable?”

Because he was staring suspiciously at Faramir, Frodo did not see Merry close his eyes in relief at Faramir’s expert diplomacy. “All right. One with curtains, through. Sam and I can both fit in one of your chairs. And none of those trumpets or shouting ‘Make way!’ or any of that nonsense.”

“Of course,” Faramir answered courteously. “Pippin, would you be good enough to run to the Palace and summon a chair?”

“Errr…” Pippin blushed. “I wasn’t paying attention to how we got here, Faramir. I mean, I just drive the cart and follow all the other carts. To go back, you would … um … turn right at the rat-catchers?”

“Right. I mean, right, you turn left. Then left at the leather shop. Cut through the alley, a right at the bakery, another right at the … Pippin, are you getting this?”

“Perhaps I should go,” Merry interjected, seeing his cousin’s eyes glazing. “Pip isn’t good with directions. Why don’t you draw me a map?”

Paper, quill, and an inkpot were hastily procured from their host, and the Prince and the four hobbits leaned over it as Faramir began to draw. “But that street’s blocked by rubble,” Sam said, pointing a finger at Faramir’s sketch.

Faramir crossed the line out. “That’s right. Thank you, Master Samwise. Well, if you go this way—not so far as I drew it, of course—“The hobbits looked at the map worriedly. Faramir held it up and shook his head. “I drew it and I can’t even read it. I’d best go myself.” He looked at the hobbits. “Will you wait for me here? Right here? And not leave until I return?”

“Of course,” Frodo replied, puzzled at the Man’s persistence. Merry met Faramir’s eyes and nodded, Pippin with him. Sam looked at them, frowning as Faramir left, aware of words in the air that were not being said.

Closing the shutters lent the room a darkened, comforting air and muted the buzz of the still-present crowd outside. Their host had lit a fire in the hearth, and the smells of luncheon were beginning to creep tantalizingly from the kitchen. Bundles of herbs and grains hung from the low, half-timbered ceiling, and the room was untidily cluttered with mugs and barrels and bits of debris. Pippin delved into his pockets and began divesting himself of an astonishing array (and amount) of foodstuffs; sticky buns, sugared biscuits, crumpets, small cakes, slices of pie wrapped in stiff paper, apples, pears, and little bags of sweet berries. Merry contributed his handkerchief of scones. This kept the hobbits happily occupied until the innkeep laid steaming platters of luncheon before them.

“No sirs, I won’t take a penny. This is my honour. Wait till my competition hears the Ring-bearers ate at my table! My business will triple!”

“Thank you,” Frodo told him. “This is most kind of you. But you cannot close your common room just to serve us. Please … open your doors.”

Mikah smiled, his relief evident. “That’s good of you, sir. I’ll not deny I would miss losing the midday custom. With your permission, then…” With a wink he was gone, stopping only to refill their ales. The room slowly began to fill with people, but the hobbits were not accosted. Mikah stood by the door, limiting the number of people he allowed in, and seating them all well away from his special diners.

With the table spread with food, the place looked almost hobbity. Pippin gazed about them, his sharp features relaxing in pleasure. “Do you remember the last time we all had a quiet drink together? Just the four of us? I think it was at The Prancing Pony in Bree. The night we met Aragorn.”

“And he told us to call him Strider,” Sam recalled. “Disreputable-looking sort. All mud and worn clothes, looking like something my Gaffer would send ‘round to the back door.”

“Mum wouldn’t have allowed him in the house,” Merry agreed.

“Your Mum wouldn’t allow me in the house,” Pippin pointed out around a mouthful of roast chicken.

“Shows her good taste, doesn’t it?” Merry shot back. “I have to admit, though, we got good use of the outdoor bath Mum had built after The Pigsty Incident.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Pippin protested. “I was minding my own business…”

The hobbits continued to relax as talk swelled around them, never noticing the three diners near the fire who did not indulge in casual conversation. The three men were consuming their food sullenly, flicking glances at the hobbits. Even the ever-observant Sam did not notice; the hobbits had accepted being objects of discussion amongst almost every table and had decided to ignore the attention.

The men wore swords, which was not unusual with the lingering trouble in the city. Knives were stuck in sheaths at their belts, and the largest of the men bore a length of rope wound under his tunic, coiled around his body. It was this one who kept the closest surveillance on the hobbits, watching them while his dirty hands stroked the hilt of his knife.

“That one,” he muttered over his platter. The other two men leaned closer. “The pale one with dark hair.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes. Look at his hand. There can be no mistake.”

One of the other men licked his lips. “Where and when?”

“Now, if we can manage it. This is our first opportunity; he has not been out of the Houses of Healing and the palace often before. And the Prince has left them, though I do not doubt he will return as soon as he can. If not today, who knows how long we might have to wait?” He looked around his small circle and the other two nodded slowly.

“Today, then. Now. As soon as we can catch the Ring-bearer alone.”

* TBC *

Chapter Five – Outside of the Inn

Frodo pushed himself back from the table with a groan. “That was simply wonderful. I couldn’t eat another bite.”

The innkeeper beamed at him and bowed deeply. “I’ll tell my cook you enjoyed his fare, milord. Are you certain I can’t bring you sirs something else?”

“No, no,” the hobbits assured him, Pippin from around a mouthful of pie. “Truly,” Frodo added, “You have been too kind. I can’t think of another thing I could possibly eat.” Mikah bowed again and took himself off to wait on his other customers, pride in his every step. “Well, perhaps if there were some mushrooms...” Frodo continued reflectively as the man moved out of hearing range.

“It’s hard to find fresh food of any sort,” Pippin remarked, laying down his fork with a sated sigh. “Aragorn is repairing the roads, but there aren’t many produce wagons coming into Minas Tirith yet. No hope of mushrooms, I’m afraid.”

“Aragorn searched the city for them,” Merry said, snagging an overlooked ginger biscuit from Pippin’s haul. He licked the sugar off it then bit into it blissfully. “Excellent. You tell that man his wife’s a treasure, Pip.” Swivelling back to Frodo, Merry continued, “He told all the people they were your favourite and asked if anyone had mushrooms for sale. There were none to be had.”

Frodo nodded. “Just as well, I suppose. One more bite and I might pop. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much. Not even at Aragorn’s banquets.”

”Peacocks with all their fancy feathers stuck back on,” said Sam disapprovingly. “It’s indecent. Give me a plain roast chicken anytime.”

“No one mention ‘chicken,’ or any other item of food for at least two hours,” Merry said firmly, leaning back and lacing his fingers over his rounded stomach. “Do you think anyone would mind if I took a nap on this bench?”

“I’m going to step outside for a breath of air.” Frodo had barely gained his feet before Merry and Pippin had both snapped upright and leapt to his side. He and Sam gazed at them in astonishment.

“There’s plenty of air in here, Frodo,” Merry said at the same time as Pippin said, “We promised Faramir we’d wait for him right here.”

Frodo turned to Sam, but Sam could only shrug, his eyes round as he stared at the two young hobbits. “I’ll only be a moment,” Frodo told them in puzzlement.

Frodo stood a step towards the door and found himself flanked by cousins, one on either side. “We’ll go with you,” Merry said flatly. Sam shook his head and meandered after them, deciding it was advisable to ‘stand up and let things settle’ himself.

“How many ales have you had, lads?” Frodo asked over his shoulder. Neither rose to his gentle baiting. Deciding to ignore them, Frodo paused in the doorway, taking a deep breath of the afternoon air. His hopes that the crowd has grown weary with the lengthy wait and dispersed were only partially fulfilled. The circle of faces had been greatly reduced, but still over a score of townsfolk waited to greet him. At his appearance a murmur ran through them and they bowed as he stepped outside. Forewarned and fortified by a luncheon of astonishing size, Frodo bowed graciously in return. The people bowed again, lower. Frodo reciprocated, wishing he had perhaps not eaten quite so heartily.

“Ring-bearer! Ring-bearer!” A man pushed his way to the front of the crowd, an older man with a florid face and intent expression. Frodo smiled at him, determined to be polite. The man started towards him, holding something large and flat covered by a cloth between his hands.

“Look out!”

“You there! Stop!”

Two hobbit-shaped blurs shot past Frodo, tugging their swords from their sheaths. The approaching man halted, his face startled and frightened. Seeing the sword-waving hobbits bearing down on him, he turned to run, the covered thing he was holding flying from his grasp.


In a heartbeat Merry had whirled, Pippin with him, and were racing back towards Frodo. The sound of something shattering against the paving stones was drowned out by Merry’s shout of “Frodo, get down! Get down!” A strong hand clamped on his shoulder and Frodo was dimly aware of Sam dragging him backward before two large hobbit-bodies slammed into him and bore him to the ground.

The absolute silence that followed was marred only by the retreating footfalls of the remaining crowd and the panting breaths of hobbits. Frodo could not see; someone had thrown himself across his head. He also could not breathe—someone else was lying across his body. Another hobbit-form was pinning his legs. He was being crushed.

He tried for a breath. “Gah …ugh!”

“What did he say?” asked one of the uniformed mountains pressing him down.

Frodo tried again. “Get ,,, get off me, lads!”

The hobbit pile stirred. Merry slid off Pippin’s back and pushed himself upright, holding his sword carefully out of the way. Pippin was next, rolling off Frodo to stand in embarrassed silence. He sheathed his sword and became very involved in patting the dust from his uniform. Sam raised himself up on his forearms and rolled to the side, wincing at the weight of the other two.

“Did we squash you flat, sir?”

“Just … about,” Frodo gasped shakily as he struggled to sit up. No bones seemed broken and his lungs were remembering their role. “Now, would someone … please tell me what is going on?”

Merry and Pippin coughed and looked at their feet.  “We were protecting you, Cousin,” Pippin said, daring a glance up.

“I did pick up on that,” Frodo said dryly, not making an attempt to stand yet. “May I ask from what?”

“There have been rumours in the city, Frodo. Aragorn told us to guard you,” Merry answered slowly. “That is why Faramir came along. “

“What rumours?”

Pippin had given up on getting the dust off his formerly pristine uniform and was now engaged in pulling on the hem of his surcoat to work out the wrinkles. He shot a glance at Merry then returned to his fierce smoothing of the mussed cloth. Merry was staring into the middle distance, standing stiffly at attention. He looked like he was one the parade ground. Neither of them answered. Frodo frowned at them both and went for the most vulnerable target.

“Peregrin Took! Answer me!”

Pippin jumped, then shot an apologetic look at Merry. “You have to understand, Frodo, that things are still so unsettled. Aragorn heard … well, that there might be a … an attempt on the Ring-bearer. You know the King would do anything to ensure your safety, Cousin. Or would pay anything to get you back, if you were taken.”

“Taken?” Sam’s voice was shrill. “What do you mean, ‘taken’?”

The younger hobbits traded an unhappy glance. “Kidnapped,” Merry said briefly. “For ransom. Aragorn is afraid someone might try to kidnap Frodo and hold him for ransom.”

Silence settled over the hobbits. Frodo drew up his knees and wrapped his arms carefully around them, becoming aware of bruised ribs that were just beginning to make their complaints known.

“So when that man…”

“Aragorn said to guard you,” Merry repeated. “We didn’t know what that stranger’s intentions were. It could have been a knife, anything, under that cloth. When he threw it towards you—”

“Don’t you mean ‘dropped that serving platter’?”

Pippin flushed. “Yes, well, now we know that. But it looked like he was throwing it. Aragorn told us about the black powder Saruman used at Helm’s Deep, how it exploded upon hitting a solid object. Like paving stones. So we did the only thing we could to protect you.” He grinned weakly. “Sam beat us to it, however.”

Sam bent down and carefully lifted the largest piece of shattered crockery away from the mess. It had been a fine platter, its graceful contours outlined in gold. The most mouth-watering smell wafted up from the soggy pile beneath it, of plump mushrooms roasted in some kind of thick, creamy sauce. Even splattered on the ground, it smelled delicious. Frodo looked at it sadly.

“Oh, that poor man,” he said regretfully. “He must think we’ve gone mad.” They looked about but there was no sign of the unfortunate fellow. The rest of the citizenry had wisely withdrawn, though a few apprehensive faces were peering out at them from behind barrels and around corners.

Inquisitive faces were also staring at them from the inn, the shutters thrown open to let the gawkers see what all the shouting was about. Mikah stood wringing his hands in the doorway, obviously not sure what to do when his exalted guest was being assaulted by the honoured Periannath and his friends. Several people took the opportunity to slip out behind him, no doubt exiting ahead of trouble. Frodo averted his face from the curious eyes, his cheeks burning.

“Going back to this ransom thing,” Sam pursued relentlessly.

Merry sighed, seeing Sam was not going to let it pass. “Aragorn has ears in the city, you know. Those Ranger-friends of his, and the Elves, and those seeking to curry royal favour. There is a lot of confusion in the Minas Tirith now. No one feels really safe yet, with Orcs or a lost troll still turning up and attacking people now and then.” Merry turned away from Frodo for a moment, sheathing his sword. When he looked up again, his face had tightened and his mouth thinned. His blue eyes bored into Frodo’s.

“The King fears a certain kind of Men—enemy deserters and layabouts and ne’er-do-wells—might seek to profit off all the unrest. There’s been some looting and stealing of valuable things.” Merry looked at his seated cousin keenly. “Do you know of anything more valuable to the people of Gondor—to all of Middle-earth—than the Ring-bearer?”

Frodo’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. He looked up at Pippin, who nodded at him solemnly. “Aragorn would do anything, or pay anything, to keep you safe, Frodo,” the young hobbit murmured.

Frodo had no answer to that. He held out an arm and Sam clasped his hand, pulling his master gently to his feet. Frodo staggered and sagged against Sam, his face suddenly pale. Sam put a concerned arm around him and looked over his head at the others, worry on his face. Swaying dizzily, Frodo tried to straighten. Suddenly he hunched over, one hand flying to his mouth while the other pressed hard against his stomach.

“Oh! Oh no…” He stumbled against Sam, sweat breaking from his brow. “Privy,” Frodo said succinctly.

“What?” Pippin asked, staring at him.

“Privy!” Wordlessly, Sam pointed a finger towards the rear of the building. Frodo took off at a lurching run.

“Did you have to hit him so hard?” Merry growled at Pippin as they trailed after their unfortunate cousin. “Look what you did.”

“I think it was Sam’s elbow that caught him in the stomach,” Pippin growled back.

“I didn’t know what you two were about,” Sam defended himself. “You ran past us waving your swords, shouting at him to ‘get down,’ so I was pulled him down. It was you two sirs who piled on top of my poor master and near flattened him.”

The privy door slammed. There was a second of silence. Then all three hobbits winced at the sounds of retching emanating from the outhouse. “Oh dear,” Sam said quietly.

“All that lovely food coming up isn’t going to taste as good as it did going down,” Pippin said reflectively. “You realise he is going to be in a foul mood after this, don’t you.”

A loud groan issued from behind the wooden door. With a grimace at the other two, Sam sidled up to the door and called, “You all right, sir?”

“No! Stay out!” The hobbits looked at the ground and shuffled their feet. A particularly loud thump sounded from inside, followed by several thuds. The hobbits winced, Pippin rubbing his stomach in sympathy. They waited.

After several minutes of mortified silence, Merry glanced at the others and dared to try the door again. “Are you all right in there, Cousin? You’re not upset with us, are you? Though I would understand if you were.” Silence.

Pippin looked at Merry miserably. “Look, it was a misunderstanding.” He cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered loudly at the door, “Frodo, we’ll find that man and apologise, all right? Someone here will know who he is. We’ll buy him a new platter.” At the continuing silence, Pippin added, “Two platters. All right? We’ll buy him a whole new set.”

“It’s coming out of your wages,” Merry muttered.

“Why mine? I didn’t—“

“Mr. Frodo?” Sam’s voice was worried. “Master?”

Silence. The hobbits looked at each apprehensively. Pippin inched up against the door and laid an ear against it, drawing back to shake his head when the heavy wood yielded no sound. “You don’t suppose he fainted, do you?”

Merry’s face grew grim. “I’m going in. He can bite my head off if he wants, but I’m going to make sure he’s all right.”

Pippin stepped out of the way. “It was nice knowing you, Merry. I’ll tell your mum you died bravely.”

“Frodo, I’m opening this door if you don’t say something right now!” Merry pulled the door open and stuck his head into the small, three-seat privy. All of the doors on the stalls hung open, and it only took him a glance to see all three were completely empty.

* * *

“Calm down, Merry. Take a breath.”

“Faramir, there’s no time!” Merry stared helplessly into the Man’s eyes, his hands clenched into fists. The Prince knelt on the paving stones and tried to calm the trembling hobbit. He had come upon the three darting wildly about the inn where he had left them, calling, ”Frodo! Frodo!” He had managed to capture Merry, letting the other two race frantically past him.

“How long ago?” Merry looked at him blankly and he gave the hobbit a shake. “Merry! How long ago!”

“Not more than ten minutes,” Merry reported with an effort. “If I’d know you were nearly back—“

“Then he can’t have been taken far.” Faramir would not allow Merry to wallow in self-recrimination, especially over something he could not have known. Pippin and Sam were still searching, their faint calls of “Frodo!” drifting back through the winding streets. ”You were here long enough for them to formulate a plan… Kidnappers would not carry an unconscious or bound hobbit through the streets – too many would see and would intervene. Merry, ask the people if they have seen anyone carrying a rolled-up rug, or a large carry-basket, or someone driving a small cart with the back covered.”

Merry gaped at him. “Of course! What was I thinking? Pippin! Sam!” Faramir rocked back on his heels; the young hobbit’s shout nearly deafening him.

His ears still ringing, Faramir motioned the leader of the sedan chair to him. “Go back to the palace,” he instructed the man tersely. “Tell the King what has happened here. We need the Guard, every man, on duty or off. All leaves are cancelled, and the reserves are to be called up. Tell the King the city gates must be closed, all of them.”

“Yes, my lord,” the man whispered, his face white as parchment. “My men will stay and help you search, by your leave.”

“Their help is welcome,” Faramir replied grimly as the three other bearers bowed and scattered. “Are they armed?”

The man shook his head. “No, my lord.”

Pippin dashed up to Faramir as the sedan leader took off at a run. He had the innkeeper by the hand, tugging him up to the prince. Mikah bowed, his face pallid. “My lord, three men left my common room in a hurry, without finishing their meals or paying their bill. They must have snuck out behind me. I didn’t know them, lord—and I know most all the folk living ‘round here. But I noticed them staring at the halflings, sir, and hardest at the Ring-bearer.”

Faramir found his hand clamped on the hilt of his sword, and calmed himself deliberately. “They must have been hiding in the privy, knowing the halflings would go there eventually. But how did they get out?”

Mikah coughed apologetically. “Milord, there’s several loose boards on the far side wall. I’ve been meaning to fix them—“

“So they were either lying in wait, or went him in after him, hidden from your eyes by the corner. If these are the men we want, at all. Can you describe them to me?”

“Mr. Faramir!” Sam was herding a little girl up to them, the same one who had curtsied to Frodo upon their arrival. She looked very frightened, but also determined.

“My lords,” she whispered hesitantly, obviously in awe of the Prince. Faramir smiled at her and she relaxed slightly.

“It’s all right, lass,” Sam reassured her. “Tell them what you told me.”

“I saw them, my lords. Three men, strangers. I saw them go into the inn when Mikah let people in for luncheon. I saw them leave, and—my lord, the biggest was carrying something over his shoulder. He had his cloak thrown over it. It was something about my size, that dangled. Like a body, sir. It wasn’t moving.”

“Which way?” Faramir asked her evenly.

The child pivoted and pointed unerringly down one of the narrow streets. Faramir thanked her with a pat on the head while he addressed the innkeeper. “You—Mikah, is it? You and this young lady give this man their descriptions.” A wave of his hand returned the bearers to his side. “You men come with me.” The other two men looked angry. Somewhere in their searching one had acquired a sword, and the other a thick wooden club.

“We’re coming too,” announced Merry.

Faramir hesitated. “We’re armed,” Merry pointed out reasonably. “And Frodo would answer us, whereas he might not an unknown voice. If he can answer us, he will.”

“All right. Master Samwise, you—“

“Sam’s staying here,” Merry declared to both Sam and Pippin’s shock. Merry stuck a finger in their friend’s chest, staring into the spluttering hobbit’s eyes. “You’ve done enough running about, Mr. Gamgee. Did you think I wouldn’t see you limping? You will stay here and help Mikah and be ready to take care of Frodo when we bring him back.”

Sam’s face began to turn red. “Mr. Merry—“

No, Sam. You’re not so long out of the Houses of Healing yourself. Frodo—and Aragorn and Gandalf and Elrond—would have my head if I let you hurt yourself.”

Merry turned and raced towards the indicated lane, effectively concluding the argument. Pippin dashed after him. With an apologetic glance at Sam, Faramir led his two men in pursuit. Sam stared after them, his mouth still open and tears streaming down his face.

* TBC *


Chapter Six – Amongst the Shattered Stones

“Hoy! Hold still, you evil little bugger!”

A small speck of satisfaction threaded its way past the swirling dizziness as Frodo heard the Man grunt in pain. He twisted within the imprisoning cloak and drew back his foot again, driving it forward into his captor’s stomach. Ambush him in the privy, would they? Knock him on the head and sling him over a shoulder like a sack of grain, would they? Carry him away from his friends, would they?

The man doubled over, swearing. He lurched, staggering, and the arm clamped across the back of Frodo’s knees loosened. Frodo kicked his legs up and hunched like an earthworm, trying to fling himself off the Man’s shoulder. He slid forward, a brief vision of dropping on his head flashing through his mind. Then a huge hand descended on his back, shoving him down onto the shoulder, forcing his face against the back of Man’s foul-smelling tunic. Frodo moaned, sick with helpless rage.

It had happened so quickly. He remembered hearing his friends’ solicitous queries outside the privy door as he had straightened, wiping his mouth. His ears still ringing from his hacking, he had never heard the intruders. His thoughts had been on the tongue-lashing he was going to give Merry and Pippin and Sam for their misplaced and unnecessary protectiveness. Frodo winced, thinking of the apology he now owed them. Then hands had clamped on his shoulders and he had been spun around, a stained, stinking cloak thrown over his head. Already sick and disoriented, he could not prevent himself from being lifted into the air and thrown over a shoulder.

Think he was a weak little hobbit, did they? If he only had Sting! Frodo clenched his hands together and arched his back, rocking up as high as he could on the bouncing shoulder. Steeling himself, he slammed his fists against the broad back. The man straightened, as Frodo hoped he would, and called him a filthy name.

He kicked the man as hard as he could, as low as he could. This was no time for the strictures of honour. Their attacking him in a privy, when he had no chance of defending himself, negated them any such consideration. The breath went out of the Man in a whoosh and he stopped running with a suddenness that sent both of them onto the paved stone beneath them.

The Man released his hold across the back of Frodo’s knees as he fell but the hobbit had no time to spring free. Still half-stunned from the blow on the head that had silenced him, Frodo hit the ground with a thud that jarred his teeth, then the Man’s entire weight came down on top of him. He heard the Man groan, but he had no breath for such an utterance. Even three overly protective friends did not weigh as much as this Oliphaunt crushing him. Pinned flat on his back, he pushed at the Man’s body and tried to slide free. The cloak still imprisoned him, wrapped tightly around his body. The man was oblivious to anything outside of his own pain; he writhed on the ground, rolling off Frodo as he curled into a ball and clutched himself.

Feeling the weight on him disappear, Frodo struggled with the dirty cloak, managing to free one arm. He had just worked his head free when a pair of boots strolled to a halt before him. Frodo froze. The man bent over and reached down, his hand closing on Frodo’s shoulder. Not again! I won’t be taken again!  The cry seemed to well from deep within him, both familiar and terrifying.

The hand tightened on his shoulder and started to pull him upright. Frodo latched on to a hank of long, greasy hair with all the strength he had in his damaged hand and yanked.

“AAhhhhh! Holy—!”

The man fell to his knees, releasing Frodo to grab at his head. Frodo scrambled to the side as the man fell backwards, dragging himself free of the cloak. In his hand was a length of long black hair, attached to a sizeable piece of scalp. Blood was beginning to ooze from the edges. He gaped at it, then threw it from him with a shudder. A snarl of fury, barely human, made him look up. Rage was in the man’s face as he crawled towards him, but Frodo did not wait for him to strike. Rolling up on his elbow, Frodo stiffened his fingers and jabbed for the eyes.

“You little—!” The man threw up his arm, blocking Frodo’s strike. Quick as lightning, the hobbit scooted forward, out of either man’s grasp. He slid to a stop several paces away and struggled to his feet. He had to get away, out of—what was this place? They were in an alley littered with huge, tumbled stones, many larger than he was, remnants of the walls of once-fine buildings.

Run! Frodo ordered himself. Find a Guardsman!

He was closer to one end of the alley than the other. A few hundred feet … but he could not. His legs felt leaden and a fine trembling ran through him. His head had gone from dizziness to fierce pounding, sharp stabs of pain near splitting his skull. With each stab, his vision greyed out a little more. He needed time.

Men and hobbit stared at each other, panting. The entire battle had taken no more than a few seconds. The one he had sought to blind was climbing slowly to his feet. The other remained on the ground, still clutching his misery, hatred naked on his face.

“You evil little sod,” the man gasped, as if he were the one affronted. “I’m going to make you sorry you were ever born.” He struggled into a sitting position, then started to creep towards Frodo.

The third man, who had kept himself safely out of the mêlée, circled around Frodo and caught his leader’s arm. “He has to be whole! We promised!”

“Whole don’t mean unhurt,” the leader snarled. “We’ll just tell them he got banged up a little when we took him. They won’t know the difference.”

Frodo was confused. Who were they and them? Did the men mean Aragorn? It did not sound so. Whatever they were talking about, it was not important now — escaping was. Fighting to catch his breath, Frodo backed up, stopping only when the cool stone of a wall halted him. Damage from the Enemy’s siege engines was terrible here; few parts of the walls on either side stood intact. Most bore holes where missiles had torn through them. Some buildings were totally destroyed, only rubble and great blocks of white stone and marble remained, tumbled about like children’s toys.

Such would provide good cover. Perhaps he could hide amongst them until help arrived. Keeping his eyes on the men, he fumbled behind him, feeling the sharp edges of broken masonry. Frodo glanced behind him, then his eyes widened in amazement. Chips crumbled into his hands, sharp-sided and heavy. Weapons. Turning quickly, he gathered these into his hands, rolling them in his palms to learn their shape and weight, readying himself to throw. It was unlikely that these Men were familiar with this ability of hobbit-folk.

The faintest sound alerted him, a bit of rock turned under a booted foot. Frodo ducked and felt air swish past his ears as a pair of arms closed over his head. He flung himself to the side and rolled out of the third man’s reach. On his feet again, he darted between the huge, tumbled blocks of stone littering the alley and crouched down again, fighting the greyness that threatened to overwhelm him.

“Get him! Get him!”

“I’m trying!” the man shouted back. “He’s fast!” Turning back to the scattered blocks, he crooned, “Come here, little halfling. We won’t hurt you. It’s all a misunderstanding, it is. We just want to talk to you.” The man peered into the shadows between two blocks, his face twisting in a sneer. Frodo crouched lower, grateful for the cracking of a stone block that allowed him to see the man without being seen himself. He watched as the man reached into a pocket and held up something. “Look here, little fellow! I have a treat for you! Come out and I’ll give you this nice, crunchy ginger biscuit!”

Frodo could not believe his ears. Did they think him a child? The temptation to teach them otherwise was irresistible. With a quick check on the whereabouts of the other two, Frodo pushed himself up, still using the block as cover. His first stone took out the biscuit. The man jumped, then stared uncomprehendingly at his hand as the tiny bit of sweet biscuit remaining crumbled between his fingers. His jaw sagged comically. Frodo could not resist. His second stone scored right between the man’s eyes.

If only he had his sling! And Sting. And his overzealous friends. And all of Aragorn’s army, while he was wishing. At least he had the satisfaction of seeing the man stagger backwards, one hand clamped to his forehead. The man lowered his hand and stared in astonishment at the circle of red in his palm.

Then his face contorted into a snarl as he saw Frodo peering at him. “He’s hiding in the ruins! It’d help if you two would get off your bums and lend a hand!”

Movement to the left caught Frodo’s eye. He had been visible too long. He ducked back down and began to crawl along a passage between the stones, one hand sliding along the marble blocks to steady himself. He halted and crouched lower as one of the men passed in front of him, searching. The man was using his sheathed sword to poke between the blocks. Frodo watched him look up and frown, then understood the slanting afternoon sun was inhibiting the search, casting deep shadows between the ruined buildings and tumbled stones of the alley.

“Got you!” An enormous hand furled in his jacket and Frodo was jerked to his feet. He had been concentrating so on the man before him that the big man had caught him by surprise. The leader shook him, hard. Frodo’s teeth rattled. “Little man,” his captor murmured, “I am going to make you pay for that kick.  And for every other hurt you’ve given me or my men.” He laughed mirthlessly. “All I have to do is deliver you alive. Just barely breathing still qualifies as ‘alive,’ don’t it?”

Frodo acted without thinking. One of the stones he still held was sharp; he had near cut himself in picking it up. He forced his hand up and slashed the man across the forearm. The man dropped him. Frodo landed on his feet and took off.

The man leaped after him, but he was hampered by the broken masonry the hobbit had taken refuge in. Frodo darted between the stones, silent-footed as a shadow, struggling to control his breathing. He needed to rest, needed to gather his strength. He crouched between two great marble blocks, panting silently, and listened for sounds of pursuit.

* * *


The King’s roar shattered the polite conversation of the Court, the nobles and courtiers and honoured guests awaiting their turn to speak to the King spinning around in astonishment. The King was standing, fury almost visibly radiating from him. In one swift movement, he was down the many stairs of the Royal Seat and had seized a man by the throat and lifted him from the floor.

Taken! When? Where?” The unfortunate messenger gargled, his face turning blue, his hands picking feebly at the King’s. Becoming aware that the man’s feet were kicking a tattoo against his knees, Aragorn released him. The sedan chair bearer sank to the marble floor, coughing.

Aragorn knelt beside him, only peripherally aware of Gandalf coming to his side. The wizard’s eyes blazed as he took in the man’s flushed and sweated face. “Frodo?” he asked with dreadful certainty.

Aragorn nodded, his fierce eyes on the man’s face as he struggled to breathe. “The Guards brought this man in when he said he had an urgent message about the Ring-bearer. Faramir sent him.”

The man had stopped gasping, but he looked at the King with fear. “I am sorry,” Aragorn told him gravely. “I did not mean to hurt you. The Ring-bearer is very dear to me.” Aragorn paused, his eyes closing for a moment as he fought for calm. His face was composed when he opened them again, but his eyes burned. “Can you give me your message now?”

The man nodded, his fear fading. Gandalf reached out and helped the man to his feet. The messenger stared at the shining white robes and staff in awe.

“Sire,” the man whispered, forcing his gaze back to Aragorn, “Lord Faramir instructs me to tell you that the Ring-bearer was abducted outside of Mikah’s inn, one level down, past the rat-catcher’s. He—the Prince, I mean—told me to tell you that they are searching for him, he and the halflings and other folk. We don’t know who took him, your Majesty, or why.”

“I can guess why,” Gandalf growled. “There is no person more valued in Middle-earth than Frodo. He—”

“Milord,” the man interrupted, tugging tremulously at the King’s sleeve, “Lord Faramir says you must summon the—”

Guards! To me!” As the King was surrounded by grim-faced men in black and silver, Gandalf motioned for the messenger to follow him. Guiding the man to a relatively quiet corner, the White Wizard began to ask him questions, pulling from his mind and memory every detail that might aid them in their rescue.

* * *

Though the Big People were trying to be silent, Frodo could hear each clearly. The man he had kicked was nearest, his steps dragging. He was still swearing under his breath; no doubt he thought he was being quiet but his foul language travelled easily to sharp hobbit-ears. Frodo could hear him clearly. One of the men, he could not tell which, was also coming closer. Little shuffling noises betrayed him, careless steps on sliding rubble. The third he could hear only as an occasional kicked stone; the man was trying to sneak up on him.

The grey veil was lifting from his vision. Just a little longer, he prayed. Just let me rest a little longer. But the men were getting too close. He had to move or he would be discovered. He rolled the handful of small stones but he would have to stand to cast them, and they would see him.

“There he is!”

Frodo leaped into the air and was moving before he realized the shouter could not possibly have seen him. They had tricked him. He tried to take cover again, but the third man had seen him. “By the door!” the man shouted. “He’s by the door!”

They were coming at him from three sides, and the unyielding marble wall was at his back. He pushed against it as if he could somehow sink into it, and watched his abductors approach.

“Ring-bearer,” murmured the third man, nodding his head in almost a bow. The blood had run down his nose, marking him like one of the strange Men from the South who had fought in the Enemy’s armies. Seeing the hobbit’s eyes upon him, the man dabbed a finger in the blood running down his cheek and licked it deliberately, the action somehow salacious and threatening.

“My name is Frodo Baggins,” he told the men softly. He pulled his jacket straight, pleased to see the leader’s tunic sported a dark, foul-smelling stain. He had thought he had vomited on someone, just before something had slammed into his head and his world went grey.

The big man followed his gaze and his coarse, ugly face flushed. Frodo grinned, a showing of teeth, glad that insult had been added to injury. A mistake, however good it felt. The man reached under his soiled tunic and slowly pulled out a length of rope, unwinding it from his body. He twisted a length between his hands, his gaze promising that it would be used with as much pain as he could possibly inflict.

Frodo! Frodo!”

The calls were faint, but they caught all of them off guard. Quick as thought, Frodo leaped atop one of the tumbled stones that had been a wall before one of the great troll-driven siege engines had destroyed it. He clapped his hands around his mouth. “Pippin! Pip—”

“Git him!”

The smaller man, quicker than the others, dove at him. Frodo abandoned the stone and leaped back, the man’s extended fingers brushing his cloak. The wall stood was behind him; he could retreat no further. The other man had already blocked his right, arms ready to close on him. The largest man, who had carried him, walked around the rubble and stood before him, rocking lightly on his feet.

Frodo pushed back against the wall, trying to watch all three of the men as they advanced upon him. The leader was grinning, his eyes gleaming with malice.  Frodo could too well imagine what would happen to him should that Man lay hands upon him. He sidled along the wall, dodging stones, then his hands met with nothing. The door – one of the men had said he was near the door. Without turning to look behind him, Frodo leapt through the dark opening.

* TBC * 

Chapter Seven – In a Pit of Darkness

T’wasn’t fair, Sam thought, wiping tears from his eyes. I can’t wait here while Mr. Frodo’s in the hands of those Men. He’s not himself yet. The memory of Frodo’s face as he darted for the privy swam before Sam’s eyes and he writhed in mortification. Clumsy oaf! he growled at himself. You hurt him! Hurt of his own intruded on his misery; despite his protest to Merry, his feet felt as if he were again walking on the razor-sharp slopes of Mount Doom.

“Master Gamgee? My lord?”

Sam turned to find Mikah bowing to him, the man’s florid face distressed. Behind him stood nearly a dozen people. The remaining sedan-chair bearer moved among them, seeking what information they could provide. The folk ranged from the little girl who had seen Frodo carried away to the pale-faced women and boys and old men who comprised the greater part of the population of Minas Tirith after uncounted years of war. Most of the people were shaking their heads; they had seen nothing. They bowed when they saw Sam looking at them and whispered amongst themselves, looking nervously from him to the innkeeper.

“We can help, milord.” Seeing Sam’s confusion, Mikah rushed on, “Let us help, lord, please. We live here—we know the City.  We can carry word to the Gates quicker than any of the King’s men. They won’t take him out that way.”

Sam nodded; Mikah was right. “Thank you, sir,” he said softly. “That would be a help.” Mikah swung back to the crowd with a nod, and several boys took to their heels, grim determination on their young faces. Sam clamped down on his urge to call them back – despite being taller than he was, they were just lads, just children. He shouldn’t let children go into danger!

He started as a small hand slipped into his. “Your feet are bleeding,” the little girl observed, her voice quavering. Sam looked down in surprise. There was blood between his toes. Ah, that explained why his feet burned so. Some of the deeper cuts must have re-opened.

“One of my mum’s friends is a healer,” the child began, but Sam shook his head. She tightened her grasp, refusing to give up. “Please, sir. He and his family live close. I’ll go for him.”

Sam squeezed her hand gently and gave it back to her. “Thanks, lass, but my master needs me.” He grimaced as he raised a foot, shaking bright red drops onto the cobblestones. “Mr. Mikah, sir, if you’d tell the King when he comes–”

“Me talk to the King? Me? To King Elessar?” Mikah’s voice rose with each word and his round face drained of colour. He looked near to fainting. He staggered back, eyes bulging, and Sam leaped forward to catch his arm and steady him. “Talk to the King?”

“No, it’s all right,” Sam tried to reassure him. “He’s a right good Man. Just talk to him straight, and don’t let them courtiers rattle you. If he comes with Gandalf – oh dear!”

At the mention of the White Wizard, Mikah had clutched his chest and slid to a boneless heap at Sam’s feet. Sam crouched opposite him anxiously. “Don’t take on so, sir,” he begged the innkeeper. “Strider—I mean, King Elessar—and Gandalf, too, they’re good folk. When you tell them what happened to Mr. Frodo outside your inn—”

Mikah gurgled inarticulately. Sam patted the man’s shoulder and sighed. It seemed he’d be obeying Mr. Merry after all and staying to talk to Aragorn himself. And he didn’t relish the thought any more than the poor innkeeper.

* * *

In some ways, the King of the West reflected, life had been easier when he was Chief of the Dúnedain. Then, he could give an order and know every man who obeyed it. Now, he was hampered by commanders and chains of command, and endless people he did not know fighting to do his bidding. “Chains,” Aragorn muttered to himself, “chaining me from commanding!”

“Can you lead us there by a quicker route?” he asked the leader of the sedan-chair bearers. After easing the poor man’s fear of him, Aragorn had ordered the man stay to serve as guide to the place of the Ring-bearer’s abduction. The man was now trotting the long corridor at his side, looking frightened and befuddled by all the activity about him.

“No, sire,” the man replied between puffs. As accustomed as he was to trotting under the weight of a heavy chair, the King’s long legs made quick work of the marble floors and the man could barely keep pace. “To cut through the back ways would not gain us time—there are fences and other obstacles in the way. Little has been done to clear the debris from the fighting yet.”

Gandalf strode before them, the click of his staff on the polished floor like the gnashing of teeth. The soldiers of Gondor, who had faced overwhelming numbers of orcs and trolls and Ringwraiths on flying monsters took one look at his face and stayed out of his way. Men were rushing everywhere, summoning every on- and off-duty soldier, armouring themselves as they mustered. Swords and lances and long knives were being donned, some within inches of the King’s person. The unfortunate sedan-bearer shuddered as a guardsman ran past him with sword drawn, his shouts unheard in the disciplined confusion.

“Aragorn!” The dwarf’s bellow momentarily stunned the assemblage to silence. His ears ringing, Aragorn looked ahead to the great doors to see Gimli striding towards him, Legolas at his side, one hand over the ear next to Gimli. The dwarf crossed the marble floor in great strides, fair bristling with anger.

“Is it true? Frodo’s been taken?”

“It is true,” Aragorn said briefly. “This man brought word.”

Aragorn’s hand on the sedan-bearer’s shoulder propelled him forward. The trembling man bowed. “I—I am sent by Prince Faramir, lord. The Ring-bearer was kidnapped outside of Mikah’s inn, on the level below us.”

“Was he hurt?” Legolas’ voice was calm but his eyes flashed. The man had never before seen one of the Firstborn and stared at him in astonishment before he found his voice again.

“I —I don’t know, my lord.”

An officer in black and silver ran towards them and knelt before the King. “Sire, the men present are ready but not all those on leave have reported in. We need more time—”

“Enough preparation. We are going now,” Aragorn ordered him.

* * *

Pippin darted around the sedan-chair bearers, past Faramir, and managed to snatch the trailing hem of Merry’s cloak. Faramir pulled up, struggling not to collide with the hobbits and crush them. The men overshot them all and stumbled to a halt, brandishing their makeshift weapons and looking about them as if they feared imminent attack.

Merry’s hands flew to his throat. “Gaaaaakk!” He slid to a stop and delivered Pippin a reproachful look.

“What are you trying to do, Pip? Throttle me?”

“I’m sorry!” Pippin cried, distressed. “But Merry – did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“I heard nothing,” Faramir commented. With a wave of his hand, he sent the two men on. Pippin bit his tongue, swallowing the retort that sprang to his lips; Merry would box his ears if he dared remark that nothing could be heard over the noise of Men. Thudding boots, jangling chain-mail, panting breaths – oliphaunts ran with more quiet.

“What did you hear, Pippin?” Merry asked.

“I heard Frodo.” At his cousin’s look of disbelief, Pippin continued, “I know I did. He was calling me! I heard him, Merry! I did!”

Merry made placating motions with his hands. “All right, all right. I was too far ahead of you to hear. Which way?”

The young hobbit looked at the winding streets and alleyways, at a loss. “I don’t… I think it came from somewhere over there.”

“We will split up to search for him,” Faramir said decisively. “I know the City best; I will go on ahead. Merry, you take the left. Pippin, you the right.” Faramir paused and gazed distractedly in the direction Pippin had indicated, his face troubled. “That area was badly damaged in the fighting … it might be you heard only the workmen calling to each other.”  

Pippin shook his head. “No! It was Frodo!!”

Merry looked at him worriedly. “All right. But don’t you try to take on those Men yourself, Pippin. We didn’t survive the Quest and the whole War of the Ring for you to get yourself killed by Gondorian ruffians.”     

* * *

Frodo landed awkwardly, though of no fault of his own. The floor was strewn with rubble; the great stone hurled from the Enemy’s catapults had smashed through the wall then continued on to shatter everything in its path. Broken furniture littered the floor, domestic items lay shattered and abandoned amongst the wreckage. It was too dark to see any detail, but Frodo realised he had intruded into someone’s home.

“Hello?” he called softly. He did not receive an answer, nor had he expected one. It was utterly dark; had this home been occupied, there would have been some light. What illumination there was was suddenly blocked. One of the men was peering through the gap in the damaged wall—it was the man he had marked with a stone. Frodo hoped the despicable creature was still bleeding.

Frodo scuttled deeper into the darkness, holding his hands out before him to ward off collisions. The man leaned further into the entry and peered about, and the hobbit realised he must be momentarily blinded by the contrast of the afternoon sun outside and the utter darkness within. Quick as thought he stooped and his seeking hand closed on a shattered piece of stone.

“Owwww! Look out! He’s got more rocks!” The dark form howled, diving aside from the opening. The howl was followed by the sound of fervent cursing. Frodo grinned in the darkness.

“Inside, then spread out,” came the leader’s voice.  “Pick up a chair or something to use as a shield. Force him against the back wall where we can trap him.”

“We can’t see!”

“Then he can’t see you,” the leader roared. ‘Now get there, you useless, whining, miserable clods of dung!”

Frodo crouched and retreated farther from the men as they clambered through the broken wall. He had kept his gaze down after casting the stone, urging his dark-sight to kick in. He had discovered that he could see in the dark far better than he could before, far better than his fellow hobbits, better than any of the Fellowship, save perhaps Legolas and Gimli. A legacy of the Ring, one he did not want. But now it might come in useful.

Any small sound Frodo might have made was covered by the Men’s shuffling steps and snarled curses. They stumbled into the smashed furniture, slipping on the rubble. One stepped on something that slid beneath him and went down with a thud and a groan. Frodo tensed, but the man was up again too quickly to allow him a dash for freedom.

There was a metallic clang and a rolling sound, then the man Frodo had hit stooped and came up with a lantern in his hand. There was the rustle of cloth, then the strike of a flint. Oh no, thought Frodo.

“Well, hullo again.” The leader smiled nastily as his cohort raised the lamp. “Thought you’d get away, did you? Brin, bring that light around. I want to make sure the little rat don’t get past us.”

The man with the lantern—Brin–held up the lamp and sneered at him. He looked more than willing to extract revenge for the stones and other hurts Frodo had managed to inflict. Frodo fell back—andcontinued to fall.He flailed frantically, trying to regain his balance. No floor! flashed through his mind. The stone that broke the wallIt broke the floor, too!  

The leader threw himself forward and landed flat on his belly, clamping his hand around the hobbit’s wrist just as it disappeared under the floor. Frodo cried out; the pain in his wrist and left shoulder was unendurable. It felt as if muscles were tearing. He looked up into his captor’s face as he sought to drag Frodo up. “Got you!” the man shouted in triumph.

No, thought Frodo. Not again. Not ever again. He twisted sideways and kicked as hard as he could, using the momentum to swing his body up so his other hand could fasten on the grip imprisoning him. He did not have the same strength in his right hand after losing his finger, but there must be enough for this. Agony tore through his disfigured hand as he wrenched the man’s smallest finger back. Bone snapped. The man screeched and dropped him. In silence, Frodo fell.

* * *

Pippin paused at the turning of the alleyway, his pointed ears twitching. Somewhere ahead of him, a Man had cried out. He listened intently and heard what seemed to be cursing, the words indistinct but the sentiment behind them clear. He wavered, too well aware of what a wrong decision would mean for Frodo.

For a heartbeat, he debated on rushing back and finding Merry and Faramir, then discarded the idea. There might not be time. If Men were shouting and cursing, there was a fair chance his cousin was the cause of it.

Praying he was not wrong, Pippin ran down the alley. The sun had begun its westward journey and the shadows it cast into the narrow way were tricksy and confusing. He followed the voices to a gaping hole in one side of the wall lining the alley and paused, peering into it. The faint light of a lantern bobbed in the darkness.

Someone was in there! Pippin plastered himself against the wall just to the side of the dark opening. He drew his sword, holding it carefully as he inched closer. His black uniform blended well with the deepening shadows and disguised his movement as he peeked around the edge into the black room. By the light of the lantern, he could see three ill-favoured Men standing around a pit of darkness at their feet. The largest was shifting from side to side, clutching his hand against his breast, his face contorted in pain. Pippin did not recognize them, but he had not paid much attention to the other diners at the inn.

Frodo was nowhere to be seen. Pippin feared he had made the wrong choice. His cousin was most likely being carried even farther away while he wasted time chasing down three innocent Men about their own business. Or more likely, about someone else’s business. He would report them as looters to the first guardsman he saw. Stepping away from the wall, he sheathed his sword.

“Bloody halfling! Hoy, down there! Are you hurt?”

Pippin froze, his heart in his throat. Frodo. He did not hear a reply. Made careless by sudden fright, he jumped forward and leaned into the opening. His shoulder struck one of the loose stones on the side. It fell, and in the listening silence, the sound of its falling was louder than the clanging of a bell.

The Men whirled and stared towards the opening but Pippin, hobbit-quick, had already jerked back. He pressed against the wall, trembling. What to do? What to do? Merry and Faramir would be out of hailing distance by now. Run back to the inn and rouse Mikah and his friends? Attack the Men himself and hope to hold them off until help came? Pippin heard a snarled order, then the slide of steel leaving a sheath. Footfalls. One of the Men had drawn a long sword and was picking his way warily towards the door, leaving the other two with the lantern.

Pippin closed his eyes and fought to still his terror. Frodo was in that hole. They called him the Trollslayer, Pippin reminded himself. He could do this. He must.

* TBC *

I’m sorry, Bilbo, Frodo thought fuzzily. I didn’t mean to fall out of the roof tree. Don’t worry; I’m all right, truly. But the warmth of a gentle hand on his brow was only the corner of his cloak, and Bilbo’s anxious, loving voice faded into another, a harsh shouting voice, full of anger. And he wasn’t all right. A searing pain was filling him, flowing into every corner and crevice, right to his fingertips and toes. Something was broken inside of him. He coughed and tasted blood.

“Is he dead?” quavered Brin’s voice from the room above. “They won’t pay us for a corpse, Dharnor. And they might take offence and decide to kill us instead.”

The big man snatched the lantern away from him, grunting as the movement jarred the hand still clasped against his breast. “Bloody halfling!” he repeated. “We aren’t being paid near enough for this!” He waved the lantern over the pit, trying to see more than dim shapes below him. The faint light of the lantern slid over the huge stone which had smashed through the building, coming at last to rest against the back wall in the lower floor, half-submerged like some sleeping creature of the deep. Debris from the room above lay about it. Before it lay a small, crumpled form.

“He’s moving! I saw him move!” Brin knelt at the edge of the broken floor and peered cautiously into the room below, eyes straining into the darkness.

“He’s in some sort of cellar, I think.” Dharnor sank to his knees, the lantern swaying at the end of his outstretched arm. “How are we to get down to him?”

“Your rope,” Brin suggested, prudently inching back as several shards of loose stone crumbled from the sides and fell into the pit. They pattered around the still figure, indenting the hobbit’s cloak in places. Frodo did not respond.

“Lammor! Get my rope!”

The man picking his way through the rubble looked back. His sword glinted in the dim light as he lowered it carelessly. “Where is it?”

“I dropped it between the blocks somewhere. Just use your eyes!”

“It won’t be long enough,” Brin observed. “He’s a good ten feet down. Maybe if you climbed up on that big rock … no. Lammor and I won’t be able to pull both of you up by ourselves. “

“I don’t see no rope,” Lammor called over his shoulder, squinting out into the alley.

Dharnor raised his head and looked at the man’s back, disgust on his face. “Go outside,” he gritted out. “Then look at the ground between the stones.” Inaudible to the smaller man but perfectly clear to hobbit ears, the leader muttered, “Idiot.”

Not the sharpest saw in the tool shed, Pippin thought, listening to the exchange. From where he crouched just to the side of the opening, he could see the rope dangling over a marble block several feet to the right. It would not be visible to the man from inside the room.

Lammor started forward and Pippin heard a resounding crash. Something splintered, as if a heavy body had fallen on a chair or some such. There were assorted thrashing noises followed by a groan.

“Lammor! Watch where you’re going!” Dharnor shouted.

“You got the lamp,” the man groused, evidently getting up and patting down his clothes. There was a faint clinking sound as he picked up his sword. “All right, all right, I’ll find it.”

Pippin had only seconds in which to act. He drew a deep breath and kicked himself into movement.

“We’ll get another rope,” Dharnor continued, addressing Brin’s concern. “There must be one someplace in these houses. And tie them to a…” he looked around the little room. “Tie them to a bed stand, or something. Do I have to do all the thinking ‘round here?”

“He’s lying awful still,” Brin replied, ignoring the last sentence.

Frodo was dimly aware of the voices above him. They seemed far removed, while the pain was increasingly present. Something was pressing into him, something hard and sharp. Something inside, he thought. Ribs at the best, something …else … at the worst. Aragorn isn’t going to be very happy with me. Frodo was vague on exactly what was inside, but he felt certain nothing there should be punctured or broken. He felt the urge to chuckle and repressed it, recognising it as a sign of delirium. The taste of blood was stronger in his mouth.

* * *

Quick as thought, Pippin whisked behind one of the blocks and crawled to the end as Lammor climbed out of the hole. The man froze with one leg over the wall, a puzzled expression on his face. Pippin feared he had not been swift enough – had the Man glimpsed the movement?

It seemed he had. That fear was confirmed as the man stared intently at the block behind which Pippin was hiding. Sword raised, he started for it. 

“Meow,” said Pippin desperately. “Mew. Mew” The man slowed, his expression irritated. Stooping, he picked up a stone and sent it winging hard over the block.

The stone bounced inches from Pippin’s face, sending a puff of dust into his eyes. “Hissss!” he said. “Ffft! Ffft!”

The man smiled with satisfaction, and any lingering regret Pippin had for what he was planning vanished. In his book, anyone who would throw a rock at an innocent stray deserved what he was about to get.

“Nothing but a cat,” Lammor called over his shoulder, receiving an inarticulate bark of acknowledgement from the men inside. With a sigh, he dropped his gaze to the rubble-strewn ground, searching till he saw the end of the rope curving around one of the damaged blocks. Lammor blinked. For a moment, he thought he had seen a flutter of movement near the rope. He looked about suspiciously, but the broken blocks and rubble littering the alley were too small to hide a man.

Pippin tightened his hold on the chunk of stone between his hands and waited as his intended target drew near. Lammor bent to retrieve the rope. Wham!

The men looked up at an odd sound outside.  “Fool probably fell over his own feet,” Dharnor growled. “Lammor! Where’s that rope?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned his attention back to Frodo. “Hoy, halfling! Can you sit up?”

Muscles straining, Pippin dragged the unconscious man behind a fallen column. The sound of a body sliding over the cobblestones sounded to him immeasurably loud but the men inside seemed deaf. Lammor’s knees and feet stuck out beyond the pillar and the tweenager felt a moment of panic. Turning the man on his side, Pippin grabbed his legs and pushed them up to his body. Plucking the rope from the lax fingers, he dragged the man’s wrists together and wound the rope tight between them. He checked the man’s breathing as he pulled the knot, allowing himself a little glow of pride at a job well done.

“Lammor! What’s taking so long?”

Pippin’s ears warned him of the approach of one of the Men, and he threw himself down by Lammor’s side just in time. Brin came to the gap in the wall and stared out.

"Dharnor! He’s not here!”

That was sufficient to draw the other to the opening. Pippin pressed himself flat, wishing he dared peek over the column. Vision blocked, he would have to depend on his ears. “He’s run off,” he heard the second man say with certainty. “He’s gone to sell us to the King.”

‘It will take some time to reach the King,” Brin said. “If we hurry—”

“Go tell them we’ve got the Ring-bearer,” Dharnor interrupted. “Bring them back here—they can get him out of that hole. It will be dark soon. No one will see you. “

“They said he had to be whole,” Brin replied fearfully. “If he’s hurt down there—”

The big man fumed. “Just bring them. We’ll tell them he’s all theirs, as soon as we have the money. We’ll be gone before they find out he’s injured.”

Brin struggled over the wall and Pippin heard him break into a lope in the opposite direction. He listened to the other man’s harsh breathing for a moment, then it faded as the man went back into the room. Pippin sagged against the ground for a moment, letting out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. He could hear the stamping of the man’s boots as he searched the house. There was a crash, followed by a thump, as if a chest or something had been forced open. Pippin did not care why the man had left the room, for rope or looting or other reason; he cared only that, for a moment, Frodo was unguarded.

* * *

This wouldn’t do at all. He must get up. He must keep going. He was so close to the mountain now. Just a day or two and it would all be over… Frodo shuddered. No, it was over. It was done. The Ring was destroyed. He felt lost and confused, and his body hurt as if he were being consumed by the rivers of lava that still haunted his dreams.

Warm arms surrounded him, and the familiar scent of cinnamon and autumn leaves filled his nose. “Wha…?”

“Cellars have cellar doors, Frodo dear,” Pippin whispered. He hugged his cousin, his heart hammering. But his words in no way betrayed his terror. “I had a bad moment finding the house – it’s hard to guess which one it is from the alley in back – but the doors weren’t locked and here I am. Let’s get you out of this place.”

Pippin slid his arms around Frodo and started to lift. Frodo stiffened in his arms and his hand clamped on Pippin’s arm. “No! No – Pip, get out of here. Get away!”

“Not without you,” Pippin retorted. “Come on, Cousin. Those Men will be back any moment.”  He tightened his hold again, clamping down on his fear as Frodo’s head lolled against his chest.

“No,” whispered Frodo weakly. “You … you listen to me, young hobbit—”

“Not this time, Frodo,” Pippin told him. He pressed a kiss to his cousin’s temple, sniffling as the fine dark hair tickled his nose. Frodo, dear Frodo, don’t be hurt, don’t don’t. Pippin felt an overwhelming desire to weep, but he did not. “Lean on me, my creaky old cousin,” he whispered in cheery tones. “Up you get—” Frodo made a sound that froze the blood in Pippin’s veins.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Fell … badly,” Frodo mumbled. “I think something … is broken inside. Pippin, those Men–”

“Shush,” Pippin murmured. “They won’t catch us.” He looked frantically above them; the faint light of the lantern had not returned and he could hear the floor creak in what must be another room. “Are you bleeding?”

“I don’t know,” Frodo whispered back. “My shoulder is numb and my side … burns. I can’t … it is difficult to breathe.”

“Here, lean against me. Let me see if I can feel what’s wrong.” Unlatching Frodo’s cloak, Pippin pried his jacket back and off, wincing in sympathy as Frodo gasped at the movement. Pippin held him for a moment, feeling his heart beat against him as hard as his own.

Frodo tensed as Pippin unbuttoned his waistcoat and slid his hands under his shirt. He was silent but Pippin could feel cold sweat on his skin and he was almost panting; short, aborted breaths racking his slender frame. His breathing escalated abruptly when Pippin pushed gently under his arm and a small moan escaped him.

“Sorry, sorry,” Pippin whispered. “I don’t feel any bleeding. But Frodo, that rib moved. At least one is broken.” Frodo nodded wearily. Pippin glanced towards the cellar doors, seeing how much less light there was than but minutes ago. He had to get Frodo out of here.

“Let me put your arm over my shoulder – I’m sorry! Up now … easy. Lean on me. That’s right. Right foot forward. Now the left. Good. Up the stairs, out the door, and we’re free.” Spouting a steady stream of encouragement, Pippin half-carried, half-walked Frodo towards the doors.

Frodo managed several steps, but suddenly he gasped and doubled over and Pippin almost dropped him. Both arms wrapped across his chest, Frodo bowed over in a crouch, breathing harshly. He coughed, a wet, bubbling sound.

“Frodo? Are you all–” Pippin anxiously stroked his cousin’s face and his hand came away warm and wet.  He did not need the light from the failing sun outside to know it was blood.

Frodo coughed again, spitting out a mouthful of blood. More welled from his nose, dripping down his chin, staining his white shirt.  He groaned, swaying, and sagged to one knee. “Pippin, I … I can’t. Go, lad! Go!

“No! Frodo, stay awake! Please!” Pippin clamped tight to Frodo’s arm as if he could keep his cousin moving by sheer will. Frodo groaned and sagged against him. Pippin, refusing to relinquish his grip, was pulled down with him as Frodo collapsed to the floor. He coughed deeply, spraying Pippin with blood. Then his body went utterly limp.

Pippin lay him down carefully, straightening his limbs and tucking his cloak over him to keep him warm. He found he was gasping, more out of fear for Frodo than from his quick, desperate dash into the cellar. Pippin writhed in indecision; he did not want to leave his cousin but knew even with the size and strength gifted him by the Ent-draughts, he could not carry Frodo to safety unaided.

“I’m going to get help,” he murmured to the unconscious form, smoothing back the hair from Frodo’s brow. In the red light of the sinking sun, Frodo’s fine-boned features looked ruddy with a health and strength Pippin knew he no longer possessed. “I’ll be right back, Frodo. I promise.” He whirled and ran up the stairs.

A muffled hail came to his ears. Pippin stumbled on the top step, one hand reaching out to push the door open. Footsteps sounded in the room above, then Pippin heard, “Take them ‘round front. There’s doors leading down to the cellar. We can get into it that way.”

Pippin skittered back to Frodo and knelt at his cousin’s head, sliding his hands under Frodo’s shoulders. No! That might hurt him worse! Pippin dared not aggravate the injury but he could not let them be found so easily. Knotting his hands in Frodo’s shirt and waistcoat, he dragged Frodo around the enormous stone then behind it.

Pippin had seen the Enemy’s catapults flinging whole parts of ruined Osgiliath and such stones as this with his own eyes. This one had torn a path of destruction through the City until landing here, sunk in the floor, partly imbedded into the back wall. There should be space where the boulder curves away from the wall, Pippin thought. It was almost too dark to see but he groped forward and his seeking hands encountered no resistance.

There was a space, a small, narrow opening between rock and wall. Pippin pushed Frodo into it then crowded in after him. He could not stand upright. And if he could not, then the Men would have to come at him practically on their knees, and only one at a time.

“This way, sirs,” came a Man’s nervous voice. Pippin heard the tread of boots—many boots. He drew his sword. “It’s one of these houses – this one!”

There was a low growl of a question.

“No, no. This section of the City is deserted. No one saw.”

The cellar doors were flung back. Pippin could not bear it; against his better judgment, he crept forward until he could see. The last rays of the sun shone behind three squat, black forms in the doorway, behind them the taller forms of Dharnor and Brin. The foremost figure stepped into the cellar. It stilled, raising its head, and Pippin heard it sniff. “Blood,” it said in a deep, gravely voice that raised the hair on the back of Pippin’s neck.

“We didn’t do it,” Dharnor said. Pippin could hear the fear in his voice. “He fell into the cellar trying to get away from us.”

“Is it badly hurt?” Pippin spared a moment’s resentment at the lack of pronoun.

“I don’t know. He was moving a while ago.”

The figure started down the stairs, Dharnor and Brin behind it, followed by the other two. Pippin shrank against the great stone, terrified without knowing why. “Ring-bearer,” it growled.

Pippin looked about frantically, but there was no place to go. And he would not leave Frodo. The figure took another step down the stairs.

“What?” Pippin squeaked.

“He’s all right.” Dharnor’s voice was nervous and he did not seem to want to stand near to the squat figure. “As promised.” The foremost stranger stopped on the stair and turned back to him, and Pippin thought there was something wrong with the stranger’s profile.

“We’ll take our payment now,” Dharnor said. Brin nodded.

“Shunt,” said the figure. “Pay the men.”

The other two had fallen back. At the first one’s command, they each drew a sword and ran the two men through. Dharnor and Brin did not even have time to scream.

Pippin trembled, sickened. All the horrors he had seen and experienced had not prepared him for cold-blooded murder. The killers pushed the men’s bodies off their swords and they fell, rolling down the stairs to land in a bleeding heap on the cellar floor.

“Come here, Ring-bearer.”

No no no, thought Pippin. You can’t have him. Tugging off his sword belt, Pippin darted silently back to his cousin and laid his sword at Frodo’s side, closing his hand on the hilt. Then he dragged off his surcoat and rolled it up, slipping it gently under Frodo’s head. Groping frantically about in the dark , his hand closed on the warm velvet of Frodo’s jacket. He snatched it up and struggled into it.

“Come here or we’ll come get you, Ring-bearer. You won’t like that.”

His white undertunic looked enough like a shirt, Pippin decided. The jacket did not close and he wretched at it, ignoring the soft rippp! as the seams split. Buttoning it swiftly, Pippin swung on his cloak and stepped forward.

He swallowed hard. “Here I am.”

* TBC *

Chapter Nine – Down Devious Paths

Merry rounded the corner at a run, his feet slipping on the cobblestones. Another street stretched before him, narrow and dusty, lined on both sides by wooden doors fronting stone buildings. It looked exactly like the last dozen streets he had searched. And they called Brandy Hall a warren! This city of Men contained innumerable blind corners and countless dead ends and was more confusing by far. He flung himself against another door but it did not open. Frantic, he raced on.

Merry’s frenzied search had been uncharacteristically haphazard. Time and again he had hurled himself against locked doors, peered into shuttered windows, and run quick-footed and desperate though the dark rooms open to him. He could not bear to stand still and listen; all his instinct demanded he move. Nowhere did he find sign of Frodo.

Stumbling to a halt, Merry sagged against a wall, panting. This was achieving nothing, and the kidnappers might be spiriting his cousin out of Minas Tirith even as he sought uselessly through abandoned buildings and deserted alleys. Increasing his sense of being lost and alone was the falling darkness.

Think! he ordered himself. Frodo, unconscious or stunned. Merry could not bear to consider hurt. No one had seen a wagon, so the Man must be carrying him. It would be difficult to carry an insensible body far, and someone would surely see and raise the alarm. And Frodo would fight, Merry knew he would, as soon as he could. No wagon … so the ruffians could not have carried him so very far away.

He was going about this wrong. Blind searching would not find his cousin. Merry launched himself away from the wall and bellowed, “Faramir! Faramir!”

A faint shout answered him. Head turning, Merry listened but could not pinpoint the Man’s location. Curse these great stone buildings and the way they twisted sound! “Faramir! I’m outside the leather shop!”

“Wait!” came the far reply. “I’m coming!”

It seemed hours before the Man strode into view. Faramir’s face was covered with perspiration and he was breathing heavily. Merry ran to him and thrust the dipper from a nearby well into his hands. Faramir took the water gratefully, splashing the last of it over his face.

“This isn’t working,” Merry informed him. “All they’d have to do is lock the door and douse any lights, and we’d go right past them. We need a house-to-house search, with none bypassed.”

Faramir nodded, his breath returning. “Yes, I agree. We will return to the Inn – the King will go there. We must divide the City into quadrants and organize search parties. Every house and building must be accounted for.” He paused, seeing the anguish on Merry’s face. “Don’t be afraid, Merry. They won’t escape.”

“They might be gone already,” Merry whispered to himself as he ran after the Man.

* * *

The King and his grim-faced entourage were nearly to the Inn when the clatter of hooves rode over their shouted orders. Aragorn turned just as two huge grey forms burst into the courtyard. Soldiers scattered before flying hooves and bared teeth but those closest to the King drew their swords and closed around him.

Elladan and Elrohir pulled their stallions to a halt and swung down, their eyes flashing. Recognizing the Elves, the soldiers surrounding the King bowed and gave way, sheathing their swords. A man stepped forward to take the reins but Elladan’s grey lunged at him and the soldier jumped back. Aragorn, Gandalf at his side, strode past them and clasped arms with his foster brothers.

“We came as soon as we heard,” Elladan told them as Elrohir calmed the snorting horses. Ever sensitive to their masters’ moods, the stallions were tossing their heads and stamping, ready for battle. They were lathered, for the twins had been returning from a patrol with the Rohirrim when they had seen a breathless boy run to the gates and gasp out his news to the soldiers there. The twins were urging their horses into a dangerous run before the soldiers had even begun to push the great gates shut.

“Elrond?” Gandalf asked, his worried gaze over the twins’ shoulders.

“He is coming,” Elladan assured him.

“We will not stand by while another we love is taken and tortured,” Elrohir said grimly. Elladan nodded in agreement, his face both angry and sad.

Aragorn nodded, knowing well the unending grief that gnawed at his beloved brothers. “All right. As you have horses, make a circuit the buildings of the lowest level, and order all lesser gates and exits closed. The boy you saw was one of several sent to the greater gates, but the smaller gates have yet to hear. I have sent men ahead of you, but mounted, you will get there faster.”

“We will see that all of the gates and exits are closed,” Elrohir assured him. The twins swung themselves up on their horses and turned them so quickly the animals reared. Hooves striking sparks from the cobblestones, the horses and their riders broke into a gallop the way they had come.

Aragorn turned back to see a small figure hurrying determinedly towards him. “Sam! Are you all right? Where are the others?”

Sam pulled up before him, puffing. “They’ve all gone after Mr. Frodo, sir. I’m fine. Mr. Merry told me I was to wait for you, and tell you–”

Aragorn knelt down and pulled the hobbit towards him. “What is the matter with your feet?”

“Nothing!” Sam retorted, struggling to free the ankle the King was lifting. “Mr. Frodo–”

“Stand still, Samwise,” Gandalf demanded, bending over to glower at him.

Sam hopped backwards, trying to regain possession of his foot. Aragorn tightened his hold and laid a hand on the hobbit’s shoulder, effectively locking him in place. Sam didn’t dare kick. ”It’s just a little blood. Mr. Frodo, sir–”

“Carry him inside,” ordered a cool voice. “I will attend him there.” Aragorn and Gandalf looked up to see Elrond hovering over them, the only sign of his hurried arrival a slight gleam on his high forehead. Keen grey eyes studied Sam’s torn and bloodied feet.

“Mr. Frodo–” Sam began, a wail building in his throat. Before he could protest it, Aragorn stood and lifted him easily to his shoulder. Sam gasped and wrapped his arms around Aragorn’s neck, face blanching at the sudden distance to the ground. He gulped and closed his eyes as Aragorn strode towards the Inn at a dizzying pace. Gandalf came after, with Elrond gliding silently behind.

“You are the proprietor?” Mikah met them at the door and bowed, his face bloodless. He swayed on his feet and a townsman standing behind him slid a supportive hand under his elbow. Aragorn brushed past them, having no time and little sympathy for overawed innkeepers. “Bring lamps. I need water, both hot and cold, and clean bandages.“ Aragorn looked around the common room, then sat Sam carefully on one of the tables. “Then I will hear what occurred here.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the poor man whispered, hurrying away to do the King’s bidding. Sam looked after him, knowing all too well the feeling of being run over by larger folk.

“Will you listen to me?” he cried desperately. “Mr. Frodo–”

“We know, Samwise,” a gentle voice interrupted. “Prince Faramir’s messenger reached us.” Sam started; he had not seen Legolas’ slender form amongst the milling soldiers. Behind the elf, the leader of the sedan chair bearers gave him a pasty smile, then took advantage of the King’s distraction to slip into a corner and rejoin his remaining man.

“Aragorn is having the gates closed and is ordering a search,” Legolas continued. “Now be quiet and let Lord Elrond see to you.”

“Put your feet in this,” commanded Elrond. Sam dared not disobey. Biting down on a yelp, he dipped his throbbing feet into a basin of warm water. His face flushed scarlet as he realised the Lord of Imladris was preparing to wash his feet.

“Oh no, my lord, you don’t need to–”

“Hold still, Sam,” Aragorn ordered as Sam writhed from pain and mortification both. “Now, I want to know exactly what happened.” Elrond bent over the basin, his long, thin fingers cleaning and examining each abused foot. Tears crowding the corners of his eyes, Sam pushed aside the hurt to answer the King’s questions.

Then Mikah was called, then the chair bearer who had canvassed the witnesses. The man rejoined his employer with relief, almost as pale as Mikah. The King was quiet for long moments after Sam had recounted Faramir and Merry and Pippin’s pursuit. Aragorn’s eyes smouldered and his mouth was a thin, angry line.

“It is almost dark; we will need torches. Divide the men into pairs,” he ordered a grim-faced Man Sam did not know, “and have them search every room of every house and building. If the door is locked, break it down. Tell the men to move out.”

Sam was sliding down to the bench Elrond was sitting on when a firm hand clamped on his shoulder. “And where do you think you are going?”

“You can’t leave me behind!”

“Samwise Gamgee,” Aragorn said sternly. “I forbid you to walk on those feet. Do you understand me?”

“Mr. Strider, sir!”

“No, Sam,” Aragorn returned. “I will not have you cripple yourself. Give me your promise that you will not.”

Sam gaped, caught. Aragorn knew well the reverence hobbits placed on their given word. “But–”

“Sam.” Aragorn could only have picked up that tone of voice from Frodo.

Sam winced. “I promise I will stay off my feet. There! Are you happy?”

“Ecstatic,” Aragorn replied dryly. “It is for your own good, Sam.” Sam flushed, too furious and muddled to answer. He looked down at all he could see of his feet; two bulky white protuberances at the ends of his legs. He tried to wiggle his toes and gasped.

“Let that be a lesson, Master Samwise,” Elrond said serenely. “You are fortunate the damage was not worse. Deep cuts barely closed should not be subjected to racing back and forth on cobblestones. Now, put your feet up and keep them up for no less than three days.” Ignoring Sam’s mute look of appeal, the Elf-lord stood and joined Aragorn at the door. 

Gandalf laid a hand on the shaking hobbit’s shoulder, his voice kind. “You must obey the King, Samwise.”

“Gandalf, please–” Sam tried, but the wizard only squeezed his shoulder and left him.

The soldiers began to file past. Legolas cast him a commiserating look as he went by. But Gimli paused by Sam’s side and waited till Legolas was out of easy hearing. Glancing around, Gimli leaned down and whispered, “You heard Aragorn, laddie. You must not walk after us.” He laid a finger aside his nose and deliberately winked at Sam. Then he was gone, his thick form lost in the darkness.

Sam stared after them, his heart pounding. It wasn’t fair! But Aragorn had made him promise. Sam drummed his heels on the bench, too immersed in his private misery to notice the pain it caused him. Can’t walk … I promised… But Gimli … Gimli said…  Sam’s mouth dropped open. Then he closed his eyes and whacked himself hard on the side of the head. You ninnyhammer! That’s what he was trying to tell you!

The last of the soldiers were leaving, each accepting a lit torch from a man outside. Searching the folk remaining, Sam spotted the sedan chair bearers and waved urgently at them. The two Men looked startled, but came to him at once and helped him off the table and supported his uncertain steps outside.

Sam looked about nervously but Aragorn had left. Once out of the inn, the bearers released him and both men bowed deeply. Sam flushed; he’d never get used to Big People bowing to him.

“How may we serve you, lord?” the man who had served as messenger asked.

“Can you break that big chair down?” he asked them. The leader and his man looked at each other, not understanding. “I mean,” Sam explained, “can you break off that box and curtains and them big poles, so’s the chair is light enough two Men could carry it?”

The leader eyed him apprehensively. “My lord, the King said–”

“He said I weren’t to walk,” Sam interrupted him. “He didn’t say anything about being carried.”

The men hesitated. “I’ll pay for it,” Sam promised. Somehow. “And I’ll make sure the King don’t get angry with you.” Someway.

The screech of torn wood interrupted him. The leader looked up with what had been the back panel of the chair in his hands.  “Wouldn’t even consider payment, sir,” he said. “Today I talked face to face with the King I never thought I’d live to see. And saw an Elf, and a Dwarf, and the White Wizard. The heroes of the War of the Ring.”

The man cast the panel aside and tore another from the sedan chair. The other man was sawing at the long poles with a knife. “Anything we can do for you, lord, or for the one who destroyed the Enemy’s Ring, we will.” The man slowed in his work, his face averted. Sam saw his hands were clenched so tightly on the panel his knuckles strained white.

“I lost both my sons in the war, and my father when I was just a boy. The Ring-bearer’s valour has given my grandsons a future. We all have a future, now.” He looked at Sam and the tears in his eyes glimmered in the torchlight. “I will help you in any way I can.” Sam bowed his head, his understanding greater now of what his master must feel when these folk knelt before him.

In short order, the elegant sedan chair had been reduced to a simple plank of wood between two short poles. The men kicked aside the velvet curtains and bowed. “We’re ready for you, my lord.”

Sam hobbled towards them and climbed aboard. The leader suggested he lay down on the plank instead of sit and Sam agreed; he felt less like he was about to tumble off that way. He clung wobbly but resolute as the men lifted the poles to their shoulders and broke into a trot after the King.

* * *

“The King will pay your ransom,” Pippin told the dark figures evenly, fighting down the fear and the rage threatening to swallow him. He realised he could see their shadowed forms, and that he should not be able to after night had fallen.

He looked up through the gap in the floor above and saw the lantern placed right on the edge of the hole. The Man–Dharnor–must have left it there when he ran to direct Brin and these three around to the cellar door. He looked back at the squat shadows. “Then he will have you hunted down and your heads will adorn the pikes on the gates along with the orcs and the traitors.”

“Big words, little man,” the leader snarled. Pippin ignored the insult. The three looked at each other, and Pippin almost lost his composure when they laughed. Their voices were deep and gravely, like weights dragged over rough ground. “Ransom?” the leader said. “King Elessar can keep his ransom. We don’t want no ransom.”

Pippin was silent, his heart hammering. Had he heard a rustle of movement behind the stone? No, Frodo, he thought passionately. Don’t wake up. Don’t let them find you. He spoke loudly, partly from his desire to know why they did this, and because the one called Shunt had turned his head towards the sound.

“Why then kidnap the Ring-bearer? What do you want with…” Pippin almost said “him” and barely managed to change it to, “me?”

The foremost figure stared at him. The faint light of the lamp shone down on them, illuminating little more than their hoods, the span of their shoulders, and the tips of their boots. The leader reached up and Pippin saw his hands were black-skinned and clawed. “You destroyed our whole world, Ring-bearer.” It pushed back the hood.

Orcs. Pippin had known it in his heart, almost from the first words the leader had spoken. Memories of Boromir wounded and dying, of being captured and forced to run until his heart near burst crowded in on him. Being carried with his nose buried into a stinking, sweating neck, and Merry hurt and unconscious and out of his reach. He could not breathe. The room swam before his eyes.

The leader stepped forward. Extending a claw, he ran it over Pippin’s cheekbone, then lifted his finger to his mouth and licked it. “Blood,” it rumbled appreciatively. “Sweet.” Pippin realised it must be tasting the blood Frodo had coughed on him, and his stomach roiled.

The orc reached out again. Unable to bear being touched by it, Pippin cringed back. It let him, its eyes glittering in the faint light. “The Age of Men was to be over,” it whispered, bringing its finger to its mouth again. “It was to be the Age of Orcs. We would rule, and Men would be nothing more than sport and food. We would do what we wanted, with no lords over us … other than the Dark Lord, of course.

“You ended all that, Ring-bearer.” The orc took a deep breath. “I hid when the Black Tower fell. I wanted revenge more than quick death or a short life being hunted by the Whiteskins and their horses. I listened to Man-talk and learned it. I talk Man-talk good, don’t I?” It sneered at him and the light flashed on its yellow teeth.

“We–” It jerked its heads towards the other two on the stairs, “couldn’t hunt you ourselves – the people of this miserable stone city would have seen us. These foolish men agreed to deliver the one who had caused my grief to me. They got paid good for their work, didn’t they?” The creature gestured towards the bodies sprawled at the bottom of the stairs and laughed. Pippin followed the gesture and glanced away quickly, sickened. What light there was had turned the crimson blood black, and it looked like the still forms were riddled with cracks.

“I wanted the other one, too. It’s said he helped you, that you’d not been able to destroy our Master’s Ring without his aid.” I have to warn Sam, Pippin thought, then realised he had no chance of that. “Well enough,” the orc continued, “you are the one I wanted most. You are the one who threw the Ring into the fire and took away all our sport.

“I had looked forward to that sport, Ring-bearer. I intend to have it. It will be sport indeed to see how long you last, before you become food.”

Pippin’s heart fluttered. Don’t you touch me … I can’t bear for you to touch me… 

“We will go now. I doubt not the gates know of your taking by now, and we would find them barred against us. But we have other ways out.”

No, Pippin thought frantically. No one knows where Frodo is but me! I have to signal Aragorn!

One of the orcs are the stairs growled something, words in a hissing, harsh language Pippin remembered from his nightmares. It pointed at Pippin, then raised its hands, one above the other, as if it were comparing two things of different height. It pointed then at Pippin’s right hand, which he had kept carefully in his breeches’ pocket.

“Show me your hand, Ring-bearer,” the first orc snarled.

No! Pippin thought. No, I won’t

“What was that?” The orc highest on the stairs spoke, its gaze riveted on the great boulder behind them. Pippin’s heart leapt; he too had heard the faint sound, like a cough or a soft moan.

“Rats!” Pippin near shouted. The three black, misshapen heads swivelled towards him, startled by the volume. “The city is crawling with them. Rats everywhere. Rats in the streets, rats in the pantries, rats in the cellars. There’s one now!”

Before they could stop him, Pippin stooped and scooped up one of the pieces of broken stone littering the floor. He turned and threw it unerringly at the lamp. The lantern exploded into shards and flame, the oil pouring from it to run in dark streams along the floor. Flame followed it, spreading out to catch on pieces of broken furniture and discarded cloth. In moments the room above was in flames, and sparks were falling into the cellar.

“Little fool!” the orc roared, covering its head from the rain of fire. It whirled and pushed past the two on the stairs and ran out into the night. “Bring the Ring-bearer! Bring it!” The others paused, looking up into the growing inferno, but then they rushed towards him.

Pippin did not resist. He allowed himself to be flung over a shoulder, his head bumping against the orc’s back as it ran up the stairs. A smell he still feared in his dreams filled his nose. Pippin struggled to raise his head as the orc gained the top stair. The fire was catching more quickly than he had thought possible. Something, a chair, fell from the room above and shattered into flaming pieces on the floor. Hurry, Strider, Pippin prayed. Find him! Find him!

* TBC *

Chapter Ten – Through a Doorway of Heat and Flame

Despite Sam’s strangled pleas for the men to slow down, the sedan chair bearers’ pace caught them up with the King’s company all too quickly. The soldiers at the rear stared at the spectacle of the puffing men trotting towards them, a hobbit clinging white-knuckled to a board supported by two short poles between them. The sedan chair bearers looked frightened and determined, and the hobbit looked petrified. The men parted their ranks, amused smiles on their faces. Sam pretended not to notice but what remained of the sedan chair creaked under his fingers.

Word outpaced them. The line of soldiers narrowed to where Aragorn stood waiting, arms folded across his chest as if to prevent himself from snatching Sam off the plank and throttling him. Sam looked around desperately but the men had closed behind him. Some of the soldiers were openly grinning; some were staring at the ground, the stars, their boots … anything other than the King’s furious face. The sedan chair bearers lowered Sam to the ground, bowed, and slipped out of the way of the King’s anger.

“Samwise –” Aragorn grit out.

“You said I weren’t to walk,” Sam interrupted him shrilly, struggling to his feet. “And I didn’t. Walk, I mean. Being carried don’t count as walking. You said to stay off my feet. Well, I did! I kept my promise!” Sam ran out of breath, his face ruddy with apprehension.

“I did say that, didn’t I?” Aragorn mused, his eyes glinting in the torchlight. “By now I should know to watch my words around hobbits. They obey orders only when they find the orders convenient.”

Sam blushed, but he did not back down. “You may be the King, sir, but Mr. Frodo’s my master. I answer to him, not you.”

Those surrounding the King gasped in shock at this impertinence. More familiar with hobbits, Aragorn smiled grimly. “I should pass a decree requiring the presence of a hobbit at my side at all times, Master Samwise. It would help to keep me humble.”

“Yes, sir,” Sam said miserably, wondering if that decree would include leg irons.

A hum was circulating amongst the men, and more and more of them were turning from the altercation before them to point behind the King. Aragorn looked over Sam’s head at them, frowning. Sam cringed as Gandalf pushed to the fore, more afraid of the wizard’s wrath than the King’s. To his relief, Gandalf did nothing more than stare at him and heave an exasperated sigh.

“Aragorn, there is a fire,” Gandalf said, gesturing with his staff.

Aragorn whirled to behold a yellow glow in the sky. Forgetting of the condition of his feet, Sam strained up on his toes. He yipped and would have fallen, but with more than mortal speed, a long, slender hand slid under his arm and steadied him. Elrond arched one high brow at Sam, his expression ambiguous.

“Could it be Frodo?” Legolas asked. Seeing Aragorn’s gaze occupied elsewhere, Gimli rested both hands on his axe and winkled broadly at the hobbit. Sam ducked his head and grinned weakly, conspirators in disobedience.

“Possibly.” Aragorn gazed keenly into the distance but could make out nothing more than a lightening of the sky above silhouetted rooftops. “He could have set it to draw us to him. Or it could be simply a coincidence and we would lose precious time finding that out –”

“This is the Ring-bearer,” Elrond remarked, stepping forward so his voluminous mantle swirled around Sam, hiding the hobbit behind him. “The fate of the world may no longer hang on a hobbit’s strength of will, but destiny will ever haunt Frodo’s steps. No coincidence may be disregarded where he is concerned.” Sam crouched against the back of the Elf-lord’s knees, forgotten for the moment and grateful to be so.

“I cannot see what is burning,” Aragorn murmured. “Legolas–”

Legolas leaped gracefully onto a barrel and from there to the windowsill of the nearest house, gaining the second-story windowsill of the house opposite in one bound across the narrow street. He crouched on the sill, then turned himself around and sprang back over the company’s heads to lock a hand around the eave of a tall house opposite. He hung there for a moment, then kicked off from the wall and swung himself into a high arc. Letting go at the crest of his arc, Legolas landed upright on the roof.

“Elves,” Gimli groaned under his breath.

Unmindful of the stunned soldiers beneath him, Legolas raised his hand to his eyes and peered towards the shimmering skyline. “It is a house. Farther along the road and three streets in. There is smoke coming from the door and windows.”  

Aragorn stood for a moment, weighing the cost of an incorrect guess against the life of a dearly loved friend. “I cannot take the chance that it might be unrelated,” he said slowly. Gandalf nodded in agreement. With a sweep of his arm, the King sent his men running towards the flames.

* * *

Faramir ran unerringly through the confusing alleyways, his surety an aggravation to the young hobbit struggling in his wake. All right, Merry thought, he was born in Minas Tirith and he grew up here. Of course he would know every shortcut. But it is still unfair of Men to have such long legs!

Faramir vaulted gracefully over a broken pillar, easily clearing both it and the fallen upper half tilted against its base. Merry ducked under the raised half without breaking stride, feeling his hair brush the marble. His head down, he did not see the next obstacle until he nearly ran into it face-first. Ploughing to a halt, Merry looked over the chest-high piece of stone to see Faramir’s indistinct form disappearing around yet another corner.

Throwing his arms over the block, Merry tried to scramble over it but it was sheer and slippery and he slid off into a heap at its foot. Biting his lip on an expletive, he climbed to his feet and fought to control his temper. Bloody rock! The street was thick with tumbled stones, the once-grand remains of an impressive colonnade reduced to ruins by the Enemy’s catapults. Some had been thrown into the buildings lining the street, cracking their walls and adding to the debris.


“Coming, Faramir!” Merry shouted, backing up to take a run at the block. He leaped and almost slid over it, but the hilt of his sword snagged on a rough spot and dug him cruelly in the stomach. He flailed futilely and started to slide backwards. Then a large hand caught his and was pulling him forward, guiding him safely down to the ground.

Merry looked up at Faramir ruefully as he dusted himself off. “This wreckage is slowing me,” he confessed. “I can’t keep up with you. You go on to the King. I’ll collect Pip and we’ll follow.”

Faramir glanced uneasily around at the darkened doorways, many of them yawning open like mouths with broken teeth. Blotting the sweat from his face, he asked, “Are you certain? The City can be bewildering at night. And only the main streets are lit.”

“It’s Frodo they wanted,” Merry replied, refusing to admit the thought of being alone in this unfamiliar city of Men frightened him. Taking that as an affirmative, Faramir dropped to one knee and rested a hand on Merry’s shoulder, looking into the hobbit’s face.

“Be careful, Merry. It is not only the Ring-bearer the people of Gondor have come to love.” Then he was gone, leaping over the broken columns like a deer.

Merry sagged back against the block and rubbed his side where his hilt had caught him. After a moment’s reflection, he let his sword belt out a notch. Perhaps he’d been a bit too free with the vittles at Aragorn’s banquets recently. Probably should cut back on the fourth helpings.


Merry froze. His ears swivelled towards the sound and his head followed. No one should be in this area. It was probably a stray cat. Or a rat. Big rat, though. Pippin? Merry almost called out but caution sealed his lips. He dove behind a chunk of rubble and raised his head just enough to see beyond it.

“…damn halflings… ”

There was a glimmer of movement in one of the open doorways. The moon had not yet risen but the white stone of the City reflected any available light, casting it back and redoubling it on itself so even starlight proved sufficient for Merry to see a head emerge from the dark entryway. It peered about, then a small, dirty man stepped warily into the street. In one hand he held a sword, waving it before him carelessly.

“Miserable halflings,” he muttered, taking a vicious swipe at empty air. “Can’t turn around without fallin’ over one. They’re overrunning the city.”

Halflings. The Man had said “halflings.” Plural. Merry’s heart thumped. This man had seen another hobbit. Not Pippin – had his cousin seen this man, Pip would have raised the alarm. Merry had no doubts of his ability to hear Pippin wherever he might be. The entire city clear back to the Shire would have heard Pippin. This had to be one of the Men who had taken Frodo.

Merry watched as the Man continued to mutter to himself and look up and down the street. He shot a particularly nasty glare to the place where Merry and Faramir had taken their leaves of each other. Certain the man could not see him, Merry turned around and rested his back against the damaged stone, face screwed up in thought. He had to capture this Man, or secure him down until he could summon help. Merry’s hand closed on the hilt of his sword and he half-drew it from its sheath. The Man was not as large as many he had seen, but still much larger and no doubt stronger than he. If he engaged the man, he himself might be hurt … or worse, hurt the Man beyond the ability to speak. He must think of another way. The Man had to be able to talk.

* * *

He coughed, and the pain was so excruciating he almost fainted again. It was hard to breathe. What air he could pull into his body seemed hot and heavy, burning his lungs. Smoke. Fire. The room was on fire. He had to get out.

Panic drove Frodo to cough again, the fluttering in his lungs turning into a spasm. He clutched his chest and rolled onto his side, lifting himself on one elbow. Where were the Men? Something shifted under his hand and he heard the clink of metal on stone. Frodo squinted through the flickering light. His eyes were tearing, turning the object before him into a blur of silver. A sword. Pippin’s sword. Frodo stared at it blankly, then the memory of Pippin’s terrified face flashed before his eyes.

“Pippin! Where are you? Answer me, Pi–” the last was lost in a wash of pain. He fell forward onto his stomach, battling the need to cough. He knew instinctively he must keep himself still, but he could not. The cough uncurled from deep inside him, clawed its way up his throat, and burst from him in a spray of blood.

Choking, he struggled to sit up, one hand clamped over his mouth. Something slid down his chest and he caught it automatically. Pippin’s surcoat. The White Tree embroidered upon it glinted red in the light of the nearing flames.

The coughs ripping him apart, he dragged himself onto his hands and knees and tried to stand. He could not. The light and heat were becoming more intense, but Frodo felt his mind dimming. Have to get out. Pippin’s face hovered before his blurring eyes, and he heard again his cousin’s soft words in his ear. “Cellars have cellar doors, Frodo dear.”

Find the doors. Stairs. Up the stairs. He fell forward onto his hands. The pain it cost even to crawl was unbearable. It hurt as if he were being stabbed again, again and again with shift of muscle and bone. He managed one pace from the shelter of the great boulder, then two.

Smoke was pressing down on him, its presence a physical weight crushing him. He could not see the stairs–all was lost in the roiling, coiling blackness. His lungs felt as of they were filling with mud. Thick, viscous mud, searing him as it oozed into his body. There was no space left in him to breathe. He could not breathe anyway; there was no air. His hands slipping out from under him, Frodo sagged to the floor. It burned under his cheek. Blinking back tears of pain, he could not tell if the approaching darkness was oblivion or the smoke and heat of his death.

* * *

Aragorn and his company no longer needed Legolas’ guidance – all could see the glow of the fire and hear the snap and crackle of its feeding. When the company arrived, black smoke was billowing from every window, from the open door, from the cellar. The entire house was engulfed in flames.  

Some of the soldiers began ransacking nearby houses for buckets and within minutes a bucket brigade was in operation. Containers of every description were being tied to ropes and lowered into the well, to be hauled up and passed to lines of men who emptied them into the inferno and returned them for more. Sam emerged to help; his small size an advantage in tipping the buckets into the containers the Men held. As he took up less space, more could crowd around the well. Men were throwing water into every available opening. The burning house drank it all and belched back white gouts of steam.

Slapping at a spark singeing his tunic, Aragorn shook his head and swung to Gandalf in frustration. “This is not finding Frodo. Gandalf, can you…” His words died unsaid. The wizard stood facing the flames, his staff clenched between both hands, his head lifted and eyes closed. His face was rimmed with perspiration, not from the blasting heat but from effort. Wind generated by the inferno lifted his hair and beard and stirred his robes. Embers swirled around him but did not touch him.

Gandalf opened his eyes and his gaze bored into Aragorn’s. “Frodo is in the cellar,” he said quietly. “He is alive but hurt.”

“Aragorn!” Legolas cried in anguish. He leapt forward but Aragorn stopped him with a hand on his chest.

“I will go!” Aragorn told them. “All of you – wait here.”

“No!” Gandalf shouted. Aragorn looked at him in disbelief. “I mean,” the wizard continued more softly. “Let me go. Gondor cannot risk losing its King. They have waited for him for too long. I will bring him out.”

Aragorn nodded reluctantly, one hand still holding Legolas back. When Gimli would have wrapped his cloak around Gandalf, the wizard shook his head. He stepped forward, his gaze going distant. Holding his staff tight in his left hand, he raised his right, turning his palm outward like a shield. Elrond nodded to himself as the capricious light made something shine between Gandalf’s fingers. Legolas gasped and Elrond sent the young elf an admonishing look. The power of the lesser elven rings might be fading, but still they were not to be spoken of.

Sam had been watching them. Though the noise was too great for him to hear their words, he knew that something was wrong by their faces. Handing off the bucket to one of the soldiers, he tottered towards them.

Gandalf swept past him, his hand spread before him and his back very straight. He paused before the doorway, then strode forward. The flames licked out and welcomed him and swallowed him. Sam froze in shock, then broke into a run after him, his injury forgotten in his disbelief and fear.

“What’s he doing?” cried Sam. “Are you all mad? Stop him!”

“Sam.” Aragorn’s voice held the hobbit. Sam came to him uncertainly, and he placed a hand on the hobbit’s shoulder and inclined his tall form to speak to him. After a few moments Sam began to weep.

All eyes were fastened to the cellar door. Gimli began to mutter under his breath, deep guttural growls in his own language. He was rocking from foot to foot, the fine links of his mailcoat chiming discordantly. Legolas laid a hand on his arm but Gimli shook him off. “Aye,” the dwarf shouted suddenly. “That’s long enough!”

“We must go after him,” Legolas said urgently. “Look, the flames are less. Only the upper floors burn hotly now. Aragorn!”

“Trust Gandalf,” Aragorn told them, holding Sam against him.

There was a loud crack, as of shattering wood, then they were deafened by a roar. White-hot flame gushed from the cellar, blue at the heart of it. It pooled on the stairs for a heartbeat, then burst into the open air.

“Wine-casks!” roared Gimli’s powerful voice over the crackling of the fire. “Get back! Get back!”

The soldiers nearest the building scattered, some slapping at their clothing. One man stumbled and fell to his knees, his uniform on fire. The others forced him to the ground and rolled him in the dirt, smothering the flames.

“The fire is being pulled to the air outside!” Aragorn shouted. “It is too hot! Back off! Let it burn!”

“It will catch the houses on either side,” Elrond observed, his clear voice carrying easily over the clamour.

Aragorn nodded, his eyes still riveted on the empty doorway. “It is little loss. This section of the City is too damaged to repair; it would have been torn down anyway.”

“Where are they?” sobbed Sam. “Why aren’t they coming out?”

* TBC *

Chapter Eleven – Out of a House of Fire

Once again the soldiers of Gondor alerted their King; this time with shouted greetings and salutes instead of calls of alarm and pointing arms. Aragorn looked over his shoulder to see Faramir running swiftly towards him, horror on his face as he beheld the conflagration.

The sweat on the Prince’s face reflected the fire, lending his features a ghoulish hue. It looked like his face had been painted with blood. Panting hoarsely, Faramir stumbled to a stop and almost fell at the King’s feet.

“Faramir!” Aragorn cried, catching his arm. Faramir coughed deeply, unfortunately pulling heated air and ash into his lungs. He choked and had to brace himself with his hands on his knees to catch his strength.

“What news?” asked the King impatiently as Faramir straightened.

“Your Majesty, Masters Merry, Pippin and I searched along the main thoroughfare. Pippin parted from us to take one side, Merry the other, and I went on ahead, past where the kidnappers could have carried the Ring-bearer in the time since his taking. We saw no sign of them, sire. But Merry pointed out that we might well miss them, as many of the houses and buildings were locked against us.”

Faramir ran out of breath, gasping, and Elrond pushed a water-soaked length of cloth into his hands. Faramir took it and held it to his mouth, breathing cooler, cleaner air through it. He took a great breath, then continued, “Sire, you must order all locked buildings opened. They have only to hide, and we would not find them.”

“I have already done so,” Aragorn told him. “You were gone before word could reach you.”

Faramir pressed the wet cloth to his face, nodding. One of the soldiers offered him a dipper of water and he took it gratefully.

“The hobbits?” Aragorn said briefly, his brow furrowing as he looked about.

“They follow.” Faramir spat out the first mouthful and wiped his chin, downing the rest with a grimace. “Merry told me to go on ahead, as I am faster than he. He is finding Pippin. We agreed we would meet at the inn, thinking you would be there, but they will come here as I did, following the fire.”

“A most efficacious signal,” Elrond agreed.

“The fire–” Faramir began, questions in his eyes. But Aragorn stopped him with a raised hand, looking towards the burning house.

White against white, a shape had appeared at the top of the stairs. The soldiers paused, mesmerized, water dripping unheeded from their buckets. Flames billowed around the tall figure, flames gone from red to yellow to white with heat. They seemed to curl around the wizard, dancing through his hair, licking at his robes, but they did not burn him and they did not touch the small, still figure in his arms.

The assemblage rushed forward as Gandalf strode towards them. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli crowded around him but he pushed past them, ignoring their worried faces and questions. Stopping before Elrond, Gandalf knelt and carefully lay Frodo on the ground. It was Sam who snapped the awed amazement around him. Rushing forward, he threw himself down at Frodo’s side and started to lift his master’s head into his lap, but Gandalf stopped him.

“He is hurt, Sam,” Gandalf said softly. “Aragorn! He needs you!”

Elrond had already begun his examination as Aragorn knelt opposite him and quickly but carefully slid his hands under Frodo’s body. He checked the hobbit’s head, then his neck, then felt down his backbone. Elrond did the same along Frodo’s lower body, raising silver eyes to ask, “He is not burned?”

“Singed only,” Aragorn replied, his hand cupping Frodo’s cheek. The thick lashes lay on his closed eyes like smudged shadows, and soot and smoke coated him.

“He was behind a boulder – one of the catapult stones,” Gandalf told them. “It sheltered him.”

Aragorn nodded, his long, sensitive hands passing over the hobbit’s chest. When he pressed over Frodo’s ribs, the hobbit moaned and pain etched his face. Sam echoed his master’s cry as a bubble of blood formed on Frodo’s lips and ran down from his mouth.

“Ah, Frodo,” Aragorn murmured. He looked up at the others, at Gandalf standing close with Gimli and Legolas. “A rib is broken. More than one, I think.” He started to undo Frodo’s waistcoat and shirt but his fingers slipped on the small buttons. Sam pushed his hands aside and undid them, then held back the fabric. Aragorn nodded absent thanks, his attention on his patient. “The breaks are in the curved portion of the outer part of the rib cage. ”

The hiss and snap of the flames behind them drowned out the whisper of Elrond’s robes as he shifted forward, his long form bending over the hobbit. Aragorn rocked back to give him room but Sam had gained possession of Frodo’s hand, and he would not relinquish it.

“Is there costochondral separation?”

“I cannot tell if the cartilage has torn from the breastbone. The ground is too uneven.” Aragorn’s face darkened as Frodo coughed and blood ran from his nose.

Elrond leaned closer. “His breaths are shallow and fast. He is blue around the nose and mouth.” Placing an arm on each side of the hobbit, he sank down and put his ear against Frodo’s chest.

“What are you listening for?” Sam cried, fighting back sobs.

“I am listening for his breath in his lungs.” He raised himself up and looked into Aragorn’s eyes. “I hear air only on one side. “

“What does that mean?”

Elrond sat back and laid his hand on Frodo’s chest, feeling the weak draw and flow of breath. “I suspect a punctured lung, Samwise. We must get him to a place where he may be treated.”

Frodo’s eyes fluttered, then opened. He looked up at them fearfully, then his eyes focussed on Sam, and something eased in his expression. Sam smiled at him tremulously, chafing the cold hand in both of his, tears running down his face.

Then Frodo looked at the others, and his eyes widened as his gaze moved past them to the ring of soldiers around him. Aragorn saw his expression tense and he tried to sit up. Elrond pushed his shoulder, forcing him gently down again.

“Stay still, Master Frodo. We are attending you.”

“Pip … Pippin,” Frodo murmured, clenching Sam’s hand so tightly Sam gasped.

“Pippin and Merry were searching for you, Frodo,” Aragorn said, looking about him for some suitable place to take the hobbit, “as was Faramir and as many soldiers as could be summoned quickly. I will send out the ‘all-clear’ and they will return.”

“No,” Frodo groaned. “Pippin…”

At a gesture from the King, Faramir leaned forward into the hobbit’s line of vision. “I left Merry but minutes ago, Master Frodo. He and Pippin are coming.”

Frodo shook his head. “No … no. Pippin…”

“Pippin will be here shortly, Frodo. Do not fret.” Aragorn glanced at Elrond in concern; it seemed Frodo did not understand him. He caught Frodo’s other hand in his own, trying to soothe the hobbit.

Frodo looked up at him desperately, those astonishing eyes dimming. His head fell back but still he continued to struggle against the gathering dark. “No … Pippin …Pippin. He…” His eyes drooped shut, then shot open. “Pippin … ahhhh…” he stiffened suddenly, then relaxed into unconsciousness.

“Mr. Frodo!”

“No, Sam,” Aragorn said, reaching across Frodo’s body to restrain the hobbit when Sam would have roused his master. “It is better that he sleeps. He will not be aware of the pain.”

Legolas and Gimli had not been idle while the others knelt around the stricken Ring-bearer. Seeing they could do nothing to aid Frodo and Aragorn did not need them, they had begun urging the soldiers back to the bucket brigade. The fire was acting as beacon for others than Faramir; pairs of the searching men were being drawn to the site, and quickly the two set them to work. Bucket after bucket was thrown through the windows and doorways till water ran down the steps and flooded the lowest floor.

The smoke emerging from the cellar was white now, and with it rose the most dreadful stench imaginable. It was one both elf and dwarf knew from many battlefields, and one they had smelled in the recent past. Legolas looked at Gimli, sharing the memory of searching through a pile of smouldering orc corpses for the bodies their two youngest friends. Putting a hand over his nose, Legolas started down the steps. Gimli joined him at the base of the stairs, giving the two half-burned corpses there a scowl before continuing past, his hob-nailed boots allowing him to walk on the hot floor unharmed. Distastefully, Legolas examined the bodies. Rising to his feet, he waved a hand at Gimli and receiving a grumble in response, glided up the stairs to give his news to Aragorn.

“There are two bodies at the bottom of the stairs,” Legolastold the King as Aragorn conferred with Elrond. Gandalf stood by, bent slightly to keep his hand on Sam’s shoulder. Sam still sat by Frodo’s side, holding his master’s hand, his gaze never leaving Frodo’s face. Legolas looked at him sadly, then told Aragorn, “Men.”

Aragorn jerked his head and the two moved away from the still tableau, Gandalf following them. Elrond did not come but he had no need to; elven hearing would suffice. “The ruffians who kidnapped Frodo?” Aragorn asked.

“They must be. It will be difficult to identify them – the fire has destroyed their clothing and burned their flesh. But how they came to be dead in that place I cannot imagine. They were run through with swords, and Frodo did not carry his.”

“Let them burn,” Gandalf said, such anger in his tone that the others looked at him in surprise. “They did not suffer enough for what they did.”

Gimli emerged from the cellar, coughing. Coming up to them, he handed the King a small black surcoat with a White Tree embroidered upon it, burned in many places. With it was a small sword. Aragorn took them, his expression grim.

“Pippin’s,” Legolas said unnecessarily. “Why did he leave them, and where has he gone?”

“He would never leave Frodo could he prevent it,” Gimli rumbled.

“Then he could not prevent it.” Gandalf said harshly. “Elrond says we must get Frodo to the Houses of Healing, or at least a clean, flat place, very quickly.”

“I will carry him,” Aragorn said, but Elrond heard him and shook his head.

 “He is badly hurt, my son. I fear lifting and carrying him might increase his injuries. Instruct your men to search the houses and bring me a table or a child’s bed, something on which we may lay him.”

He was interrupted by a roar, a stunning blast of sound as if from a great beast. They spun towards the house. The soldiers still throwing water into it scattered, shouting. The walls of the house were giving way, the roof collapsing. A great gout of flame shot into the night, breaking off into flaming debris and sparks. Like a fountain, the flame descended to earth, splattering through each floor and bringing it all down.

Sam tugged at Elrond’s mantle, forgetful of his awe of the Lord of Imladris in his distress. “My lords, there’s the sedan chair. It’s nothing but a plank, now. It’d do for a litter. You could strap him down on it and he wouldn’t move.”

The Elf-lord smiled down at him. “Well spoken, Master Samwise.”

Sam scrubbed the tears from his eyes and motioned to the two sedan chair bearers, who at once left the soldiers and came to them. A few words and they lay the remains of a once-elegant sedan chair before them. Carefully, so carefully, Aragorn slid his hands under Frodo’s head and shoulders and lifted as Elrond did the same with the hobbit’s legs. Keeping his body straight, they lashed him to the litter.

“Your Majesty,” said the leader of the sedan chair bearers, “please let my man and I carry him. We know how to walk without jostling a passenger, and can go at greater speed than your soldiers.”

“You have my thanks,” Aragorn told him sincerely.

Elrond waved for the men to move, stationing himself at Frodo’s head as they passed. The chair bearers moved with the grace of long practice, their strides smooth and swift. Sam started to trot behind when a hand descended on his shoulder. Sam winced and stood still.

“We will discuss your interpretation of my command later, Samwise,” Aragorn said. Sam nodded glumly. “This time, I will see that my orders are enforced. You will not walk on those feet.” Two men in uniform stepped forward and bowed. “These soldiers will carry you.”

Sam shrank back from the men, and Aragorn saw the unease on the hobbit’s face. He raised an eyebrow at Legolas and the elf nodded. “Will you allow me to be your steed, Samwise?” the elf asked with a bow.

Sam flushed, caught between embarrassment and gratitude. But he would choose a friend, even though an Elf, over strange Men. “Thank you, sir,” he said simply.

Legolas knelt and Sam climbed on his back, locking his hands in front of the elf’s throat. Legolas stood easily, guiding Sam’s legs around his midsection. “All right, Sam?” Legolas asked, a trace of a smile in his voice.

“Suppose so,” Sam answered dubiously. Only Legolas’ elven hearing singled out the mumbled, mournful, “I’m not never even getting on a stepladder when we get home” as he broke into a light-footed run.

* * *

Pippin grit his teeth, determined not to hinder the orc carrying him like a sack of grain over its shoulder. Each stride forward was a stride away from Frodo. Tears of grief and terror merged in his eyes and ran down his upside-face, lodging in his hair like little pricks of ice. For Frodo, he thought as his face bumped against the creature’s stinking back. For Frodo.

The lead orc paused at the entrance to the main thoroughfare, the other and the one carrying Pippin slowing behind it. Draped over the orc’s shoulder, Pippin could not see much but he knew this place – the convoy wagons passed this way. He raised his head and the orc’s arm tightened across the back of his knees. “Quit squirming, little rat, or I’ll pull your tail for you.”

Pippin stilled, dropping his head against the orc’s back. Under its rough cloak it wore some kind of leather tunic, and it stank of sweat and dirt and old blood.

“This way,” the leader growled. “The bolthole is ahead of us. We must be gone before first light.“

The other orc said something in its snarling, hissing language, pointing a claw. The leader shook its head and the two seemed to be arguing. Pippin wondered if he could scratch something on the wall, but common sense told him his pitiful little message would never be found, certainly not at night and most likely not at all. He stroked his fingers against the cool stone of the nearest wall; the reflected light from the stars and surrounding stone was sufficient to see the line where his fingers had cleared away the dust. Help he traced out sadly.

The orcs’ argument was decided in typical orcish fashion; the leader struck the other across its snout. The orcs moved out into the road, keeping to the shadows as best they could. They stayed against the buildings unless they were forced into the open to dodge blocks and broken masonry. For such large, ungainly creatures, they could move with astonishing silence.

“Hoy! Over there!” Pippin’s heart leaped at the words, words in the Common Tongue, shouted in a Man’s voice. The orc carrying him jumped back, slamming him against a wall as it pressed itself to the shadows. The air went out of Pippin in a whoosh and a faint squeak was all he could manage.

The other orcs took cover too, the leader flat on the ground behind a fallen pillar and the other behind a barrel. Pippin’s orc swung him around before it, its hand across his mouth. Pippin closed his eyes as its touch nauseated him, then forced his eyes open.

Four Men were coming towards them. With a jolt, Pippin recognised the two sedan chair bearers who had set out with Faramir in search of Frodo. With them were two of the Guard. One of the Men was pointing and with a sinking heart, Pippin saw that it was not at him.

The orc’s hand tightened over Pippin’s mouth as the Men drew nearer. He clawed at the hand, for it was clamped over his nose and mouth and he could not breathe. The orc seemed to realise it was smothering him, for it lessened its grip a little and allowed him a tiny wheeze of air.

“What could be burning?” one of the soldiers was saying. Pippin realised he could see the Man’s face clearly – all the details were too clear in the gloom. Something burning, the Man had said. Frodo!

In a panic, Pippin thrust back and drove his elbow into leather and muscle. The orc grunted, its grip loosening. One of the soldiers’ head turned and the man frowned into the darkness. He fell behind the others, who did not notice, their attention on the blazing skyline. The soldier opened his mouth to call to them, then with a shake of his head, drew his sword and advanced towards the sound he had heard.

Pippin was dragged back as the orc retreated, half-strangling him, its paw again clamped tight over his mouth. The other two drew their swords, the steel clearing the sheaths with an almost inaudible hiss. The leader rose to a crouch, starlight glinting on his weapon. It glanced over at the other and that one nodded back, a vicious, feral grin on its malformed face. Pippin kicked and struggled frantically, but the orc was too strong.

“Hartanon! Come! We are needed!”

The soldier paused, his head turning towards the receding men. With a muttered oath, he slammed his sword back into its sheath and strode past the shadows after them.

Come back! Pippin wailed soundlessly.Come back! The man disappeared around the bend in the road, his footfalls fading. The man was walking away, leaving him a captive. Pippin sagged in the orc’s grip, defeated. He could not halt the flow of hot tears sliding over the orc’s hand.

* TBC *

Chapter Twelve - Between White Stone and Shadows

Merry ghosted after the Man, silent as the bitter wind plucking at his cloak. The man was moving slowly, picking his way through the deserted streets with caution. He paused often to peer around him or look into open doorways, and at such times Merry would use the gift given hobbit-kind not to be noticed. Was the man marking houses to return to later and loot?

Merry cast desperately through his mind for a way to subdue the man. He had considered an ambush; locating a parallel side-street and rushing ahead of his quarry, perhaps to find a wall ready to collapse at the right moment. Suddenly the man began picking up his pace. He seemed more alert too, muttering and swearing, with “damn halflings” being a frequent refrain. He obviously knew these streets, as Merry did not.

This ill-favoured Man knew where Frodo was, and Merry intended to have that information from him by any means necessary. He thought of Aragorn as he had seen him in battle, cold-eyed and merciless, and Legolas, impassive as he killed orc after orc with his bow. Gimli, splattered with blood and gore, the enemy fleeing in terror before his great axe. Merry compared his small ability as a warrior to theirs and fury shot through him at his insufficiencies. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword and he longed to confront the ruffian and beat Frodo’s whereabouts out of him.

A memory came to him from what seemed years ago but was in truth only months. One day at the end of the Fellowship’s march, he and Pippin had begged Boromir for another sword lesson, and Boromir had indulged them. Again and again he had come at the soldier, seeking an opening, and been turned aside each time. Boromir did this easily, his calm, confident voice instructive and encouraging. Yet Merry’s temper rose with each thwarted attack, angry that his greatest effort could not score against his opponent. Finally Boromir had called a halt, and leading him away from the others, sat him down where they could speak privately.

“It is not a matter of valour, Merry,” he heard the deep, gentle voice say again, “but a matter of size. Pippin would not stand much of a chance in a wrestling match against Master Samwise, would he?” At Merry’s amused shake of the head, Boromir continued, “And even less chance would he have against an adversary almost twice his size.” Boromir smiled, but Merry saw shadows in his eyes.

“It is foolish to engage an enemy who is so much larger and stronger than yourself. You are very quick, you hobbits. And courageous.” Boromir smiled again, grey eyes warming now. “You will prevail not through force of arms but through your speed and bravery. Turn your size to your advantage, Merry. I have faith in you.” Merry’s hands balled into fists. A surge of grief for a loved friend lost poured through him and a sob rose in his chest and worked its way free of his throat.

The Man halted and stared over his shoulder and Merry saw his face was frightened and wary. Merry hid behind a pillar, waiting while the man examined the road behind him then the tall buildings to each side. The moon was high now, allowing both to see the empty houses and deserted courtyards around them. The destruction was less here; they were leaving the badly damaged parts of the city. The part of the city where Faramir thought he was, Merry realised with a pang.

If speed and bravery were what he had in place of size and strength, then he would use them. Merry took a deep breath, gathering his strength and his will. As the man began walking again, he launched himself from the pillar, gathering speed with each pace. The man did not hear him until Merry was almost upon him. Merry saw his stride lessen. Sword rising into a fighting position, he started to turn around.

Merry leaped, curling into a ball as he flew through the air. He hit the small of the Man’s back and felt him stumble. He fell to the ground but the man yelped and lurched forward, the sword flying from his hand to fall in raucous clatter on the cobbles. Merry sprang up at once, determined to press his advantage while the man was still surprised and off-balance.

He darted around in front of the staggering man and threw himself at the man’s knees. The man yowled and went flying over Merry’s body, sprawling hard on the cobbles. The breath knocked out of him, he lay on the ground gasping like a fish, his hands twitching spasmodically. Merry tugged his sword from his sheath and ran to the man’s head, kneeling to dig his fingers into the greasy hair. The shock on the man’s face was almost comical as Merry dragged up his head and slid the edge of his sword against the man’s throat. The man hissed when cold steel kissed his neck and froze, not daring even to breathe. His dark, wide eyes shone in the moonlight. For a moment, both of them panted in silence. Then Merry said in a soft, certain voice, “Tell me where the Ring-bearer is or I will kill you.”

* * *

In the ensuing silence, the soldier’s retreating footfalls sounded distinctly on the paved street, each muffled thud a little fainter than the one preceding it. A shout drifted back on night air; the soldier’s companions urging him to hurry and catch up with them. The hand tightened over Pippin’s mouth again, then eased off as the hobbit made no sound.

Goodbye, Pippin thought sadly, bidding farewell both to the soldier and to his hope of rescue. Part of his heart begged the man to return, and part was passionately grateful that he did not. Three armed and ready orcs against one soldier – it would have been a slaughter. The other three men would doubtless have been drawn by the sounds of conflict and also killed. It was better that one die instead of four. Another tear slid down his cheek and over the orc’s hand.

“Little filth!” The orc holding Pippin shook him hard, easing up on its clamping across his mouth. “Stop leaking on me!”

Not wishing to antagonize the creature, Pippin shut his eyes, squeezing back the tears. The other orcs left their hiding places and rejoined his captor, hissing to each other in their harsh, ugly language. They were not paying attention to him, other than the restraining arm draped on his shoulder and held loosely over his mouth. He looked from one to another, knowing he might not get another chance. Refusing to think of what he was doing lest his courage fail him, Pippin bared his teeth, opened his mouth, and bit down on the orc’s hand as hard as he could.

The orc froze, as much from shock as from pain. Instinctively it jerked away him. Pippin seized the opportunity and bolted, head down and feet churning, spitting out coarse hair and the foulest taste imaginable. If he could get far enough ahead of them, he could find a hiding place and they would seek him in vain. He could outlast them, he knew; they could not risk being seen by the city’s inhabitants when the sun rose.

“Catch it! Catch it!” The leader sprang after him with the others following, the one he had bitten last. Pippin skidded around a corner and shot into a smaller road, risking a quick glance back to see how close they were behind him. They did not look swift; how could they run so fast?

Why did none of these roads seem to lead back to Frodo? Pippin ran past an alley, rejecting it at the last moment. Fear for his cousin rose like bile in his mouth and he regretted anew his decision to set fire to the house in the hope that Aragorn would be drawn there. At the time it seemed he could do nothing else to protect Frodo but his impetuous action seemed, in retrospect, beyond foolish. 

Light sparked in the dark and Pippin heard the ring of metal on stone bare inches from his head. From the corner of his eye, he saw something fall, moonlight flashing on metal. One of them had thrown a knife. He ducked and redoubled his speed. “Fool!” the leader snarled, clouting the knife thrower. “Don’t hurt it! It must be whole so we may kill it slowly!”

The orc he had bitten drew even with the others then passed them, its rage lending it speed. It was gaining on him. Pippin dared another glance over his shoulder; it was less than a body-length away, its heavy arms extending to grasp him. Too close. He could not outrun it, and the leg injured in battle was beginning to pain him. Spinning on his heel, Pippin pivoted and darted down a side street. The orc lumbered past the entrance, then reversed itself and stumbled into the other two as they gained the opening. All three struggled with each other to force their way after him.

Some twenty feet into the street, Pippin slid to a stop as he beheld the lane ahead of him cluttered with rubble. Not only broken blocks of marble and debris from the war, but discarded household furnishings and rubbish. You are faster than they, he thought frantically. Make them chase you under– Something slammed into his back like one of huge boulders from the Enemy’s catapults. Pippin reeled forward, throwing out his arms to shield his face from smashing into the cobblestones.

He hit the ground so hard he slid forward several lengths, irreparably ruining Frodo’s jacket. He hardly felt the pain, so stunned was he. Then in a rush feeling returned, and Pippin cried out in pain and chagrin both.

“Let me kill it!” snarled the orc he had bitten.

“No!” The leader forced itself in front of the other, blocking it. “Listen! We are almost free of this place!”

The other lunged around it, its claws reaching out for Pippin. His head still ringing, he rolled away from it. Get up, Pip-lad, Pippin thought to himself muzzily. Run! His limbs remained wooden. Peregrin Took, Pippin ordered himself in Frodo’s voice, Get up this instant! He imagined that look his cousin got when he was well and truly angry. Frodo’s face would pale, and two red spots would heat his cheeks. A little strength returned to Pippin as he concentrated harder on his image of an outraged Frodo. The way Frodo had looked the time Merry carted him back to Bag End in a wheelbarrow after his attempt to impress Pansy Mossybanks with the number of ales he could drink. Ungrateful lass.

With Frodo’s image urging him on, Pippin struggled onto his hands and knees. He was dimly aware of an argument going on behind him, punctuated with blows. Had any of that wonderful meal at Mikah’s inn remained in his stomach, he might have been sick. He was still considering the possibility when a pair of boots stepped in front of him. A clawed hand reached down and fastened on his collar, dragging him to his feet. He swayed, fighting to stand tall and straight. He would not cower before these creatures.

“Don’t like our hospitality, Ring-bearer? Not exactly your King’s table?”

“I would rather starve in the King’s midden-heap than dine with the most exalted of your lords,” Pippin replied evenly.

With a snarl, it struck him across the face. Pippin collapsed to the cobblestones, recovered enough now to feel every sharp stone beneath him like a bruise. The orc drew back its boot to kick him and Pippin steeled himself for the blow.

Instead it growled something and glared at the other two. “Carry it,” the leader ordered.

The bitten orc reached for him eagerly and Pippin scooted back on his hands and knees. The leader seemed to realise its orc’s eagerness to obey boded ill for their captive, for it caught the orc's arm, snarling at it. Then it turned its head and spoke to the other. That one reached beneath its cloak, pulling out coil after coil after coil of rope.

Pippin stared at the huge mound of rope, mystified. What was all of it for? He knew asking would only earn him another cuff, and his head still rang from the last. The orc shook out a short length, perhaps five feet, and cut it free.

The leader took the length and folded it back on itself. Pippin’s mouth dried as he saw it fashion the rope into a loop, a hangman’s noose. The orc laughed at his expression and draped the noose over his neck, pulling the knot tight enough to hurt.

“You be good now,” it said in almost a caressing tone. “You be good, you breathe. You try any more tricks, you don’t breathe. Understand?”

The rough hemp of the rope was cutting into the delicate skin of his throat. Pippin nodded. The leader gave the rope a casual flick and they started walking, Pippin ahead of the orcs like a lamb on a lead to the slaughter-house.

They walked for what seemed a long way, and the moon drifted cold and uncaring overhead. Pippin looked about but he did not know this place. The damage from the siege was less evident here. Looking ahead, Pippin saw the reason - these buildings had been sheltered by the wall, the great stone bastion that protected the city. They stopped before the black mouth of an opening not far from the wall and one of the orcs slipped into it. It was gone for several moments then it returned, gesturing with a clawed hand, and Pippin was forced to follow it into the dark.

It was an alley, deserted but for discarded barrels and crates and a few startled rats. Moonlight glimmered on some unidentified liquid pooling on the ground. Pippin scrunched up his nose as they passed it, for it stank.

At the leader’s unintelligible growl, the other two moved to the rear of the alley where a great stack of broken crates and casks were piled against the wall. They wrestled the casks and crates out of the way, and from their lightness, Pippin deduced they must be empty. Camouflage. A hole was revealed behind it, a gaping maw of darkness. The great wall was so thick that it formed a shallow tunnel and the orcs crowded into it.

“Smuggler’s bolthole,” the leader rumbled, more amiable now they had reached their goal. “Bring in forbidden things, take out forbidden things.” It laughed. “No taxes and no questions.”

A jerk of the rope dragged Pippin into the hole. Unable to resist his curiosity, he stared out of it, out into the star-pricked blackness of night. Far, far below, the Pelennor Fields shimmered under the moon’s rays, looking more like an artist’s charcoal rendering than a place where people had fought and bled and died.

The plain swam before his eyes and the blackness seemed to reach up to consume him. He slipped forward, sinking to his knees. A claw fastened on the back of his neck and pulled him back. “Not so easy a death for you, Ring-bearer,” the leader growled.

One of the others was rooting about in the casks. There was a loud squeal then it emerged with a squirming rat in its fist. It bit off the rat’s head and spat it out, then crammed the quivering body into its mouth. Blood ran from between its teeth as it chewed. Pippin decided he was very glad his stomach was empty.

The orc slurped up the tail and swallowed. “I don’t trust it,” it growled with a gesture at Pippin. “It might seek to fall, spoiling our sport.”

The leader seemed to consider this, looking at the hobbit measuringly. It nodded and told the one who had spoken, “Tie it to my back.”

Pippin was hefted onto the orc’s back and ropes were run under his legs, looped over his arms. The rope around his neck was removed for this purpose and he could not restrain a gasp of relief. The orcs laughed and the one he had bitten stroked a claw across the weal the rope had left.

Pippin kept his right ring-finger folded into his palm so tightly his hand was cramping but their minds on their escape, the orcs did not notice that this Ring-bearer had all of his fingers. The great mound of rope was again produced and after some discussion, one end tied around a stone cistern standing near the wall. One orc ducked into the bolthole and grasping the rope, turned around and braced its feet against the edge. Hand by hand, it began to let itself down the rope.

The bitten orc nodded to the one carrying Pippin. They conversed briefly then the leader entered the hole and turned around, its clawed hands on the rope. Pippin fought down a cry as he was suspended over nothing. His weight seemed negligible to the creature. As the leader began to descend, the other orc leaned over the edge and reached past the leader’s head to catch Pippin’s chin in its hand. Pippin pulled back from the taint of the orc’s breath as far as his bonds would allow. “You cry out,” it said grimly, “and I cut out your tongue. You understand?”

“Yes,” Pippin whispered.

The orc carrying him barked a laugh. “The tongue to start,” it said with satisfaction.

Hand under hand, the orc lowered itself. Pippin marvelled at its strength even he saw the wall rise past them. The rope above him swung and Pippin craned back his head to look up. The last orc was following, swinging easily down after them. What seemed miles of pale stone passed before Pippin’s eyes as the orc carrying him slid down in swift, controlled lengths. When his orc at last released the rope and dropped to the earth with a thud, Pippin’s heart dropped with it. They were outside the walls of Minas Tirith.

* TBC *

“It is too quiet here,” Gimli growled.

Aragorn and Gandalf looked at the dwarf in disbelief. The roar of the flames was decreasing, being replaced by thunderous hissing as clouds of white steam rose from the ruined house. Wood popped and stone creaked, the heat causing cracks in the marble walls and flooring. Now and then a booming clap would announce the explosion of white-hot stone, sending shards flying and men diving for cover. The soldiers were bellowing warnings to each other or calling for buckets to drown stubborn spot-fires. Others were shouting for more water or aid in dousing the neighbouring houses. As the three watched, the last of the fires was put out amidst triumphant cheering. The din was deafening.

“No hobbit-voices,” Aragorn said. His troubled eyes searched among the soldiers, looking for small forms among the larger.

“Aye. Hobbit-folk are quiet only when they want to be. You could hear them over all this clamour, did they wish it. Especially the younger ones. You said Merry and Pippin were not far behind you, Lord Faramir?”

Faramir started, realising how much time had passed since he had staggered, panting for breath, to the site of the inferno. “Merry was only steps behind me. The rubble was slowing him, but he should have been here by now.” He looked back the way he had come, forehead creasing in concern.

“And can you see young Pippin missing this excitement?” Gimli continued. “We know he was here.” The dwarf retrieved the small, singed tunic and the hobbit-sized sword, holding them almost tenderly. “Mark my words – even if he did leave Frodo to seek help, he would have returned by now.”

“And made himself know to us,” Aragorn agreed. “I cannot imagine a burning house – or city – would stop him if Frodo needed him.”

“He would let nothing stand in his way,” Gandalf said, his voice harsh with worry. “Nor would Merry. Aragorn, something has happened to them. You must order a search.”

Aragorn nodded, his face grim as he turned to the smoking buildings. Men were drinking from the buckets now, dumping them over their heads and trying to wash off some of the ash and smoke. To a man, they came to attention as the King’s voice rose over the babble. “Men of Gondor! To me! To me!” The  soldiers dropped the buckets and hurried to their King, forming ranks and bowing before him.

“You did well,” Aragorn told them, his voice carrying easily into the cold night. Their faces glowed with his praise. “But now I have another task for you. Two of the little folk, the periannath, are missing –”

“Pippin and Merry?” a sharp voice interrupted. Aragorn scanned the closest soldiers to locate the speaker and a man bowed, so covered with soot that it took him a moment to recognized Imrahil. The Prince bowed again and Aragorn gestured for him to come forward. The Prince of Dol Amroth was as filthy as the rest of the fire-fighters, and his men with him.  “Forgive my outburst, sire,” Imrahil said. “The Halflings have become my friends.”

“They are … very dear to me as well,” Aragorn replied in understanding. “Frodo tried to tell me…” He sighed, rubbing his eyes and leaving a band of soot across the bridge of his nose.

“What could have stopped them?” Imrahil asked. “The ruffians who kidnapped the Ring-bearer are burned corpses. No citizen of Minas Tirith would do them harm – they are held in respect and affection by all.”

“That is what we must find out. Now, hear my orders…”

Gandalf and Gimli stepped back as soldiers surrounded the King, pressing close to hear. The men’s faces were sweated and soot-covered, but they listened attentively, eyes fastened to Aragorn’s face. Looking at them, Gimli thought he could tell which knew Merry and Pippin just by the looks of fear and worry in their expressions.

“First we lose one hobbit,” Gimli murmured to Gandalf. “Then another goes missing. Now a third.”

Gandalf did not reply. Gimli glanced at the wizard, then stared at him. Gandalf stood stiffly, his hands clenched on the smooth white wood of his staff. Wind from the extinguished fires stirred his hair and beard. “It should have been over,” he said.

“What should be over?”

Gandalf glanced Gimli and the dwarf’s thick eyebrows rose at the anger and grief on the wizard’s face. “The danger, the hurt. Frodo endured more than we thought anyone could, and he deserves only peace for the rest of his days. I could not bear to tell him harm has come to his cousins because of him when now, at last, when a new Age is come and all suffering should be ended.”

Gimli nodded in agreement, understanding the wizard’s anger towards the capriciousness of ungrateful fate. “No more,” Gandalf continued in a whisper, “could I bear to tell Merry and Pippin that the Ring-bearer, who survived the Quest and achieved his goal through sacrifice and pain, died in Minas Tirith because of the greed of evil Men.”

“Aye,” agreed the dwarf softly. “Aye.”

* * *

“Stop!” The Elf-lord’s command brought the sedan chair bearers and the litter they bore between them to a halt. Legolas dodged to the side, forcing a yelp of surprise from Sam.

“Put him down – gently.” The sedan chair bearers pivoted smoothly to face the litter and lowered it carefully to the ground, squatting to use their legs instead of their backs. They stepped back and Elrond swept aside his heavy robes and knelt beside Frodo, leaning over him intently.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” In his anxiety, Sam tightened his hold around Legolas’ throat and a brief expression of pain crossed the elf’s face. With a word to his passenger, Legolas sank down on one knee and Sam scrambled off his back, so intent on Frodo he did not even thank the elf.

Elrond did not reply immediately, moonlight glimmering on his long hands as they moved over Frodo’s body, loosening the lashing that held him safe and still on the litter. For a moment Sam thought he saw the Elf-lord shine with an inner light, as he had seen the Lady Galadriel shine, illuminating the glade around her. He blinked and the vision was gone. Dismissing the notion, he hurried to his master’s side and dropped to his heels opposite the Elf-lord. He caught Frodo’s cold hand in his and began to stroke it comfortingly.

“He is in distress,” the healer murmured, hands moving from Frodo’s chest to the pulse at his throat, to his mouth and nose then back to his chest. His voice was calm and matter-of-fact but Sam heard sorrow in it, anger and pity. “He cannot breathe.”

Frodo was gasping, eyes closed, sweat sticking his hair to his brow. Soot covered him, merging with the bruises till they could scarce be told apart. Blood had dried on Frodo’s face and Sam rubbed it away gently, his hand shaking as he watched his master struggle to breathe.

Frodo’s eyes opened at the touch and he stared up at them. He frowned then blinked and drew breath, only to burst into agonizing coughs. He tried to turn away from them and curl into a ball as blood splattered from his lips.

“Lord Elrond, sir!” Sam cried, keeping hold of Frodo’s hand. “Help him! Help him!”

“If there is bleeding in the lungs,” Elrond began, but the look at Sam’s tormented face made him stop. He slid his arms under Frodo’s body and straightened him, easing him back on the litter. Sam scurried around the plank to the Elf-lord’s side, recapturing Frodo’s hand as soon as he could. Frodo smiled at him and squeezed Sam’s hand reassuringly before looking at Elrond.

“Master Frodo, cough. You must cough.” Frodo’s smile faltered and he shook his head.

“That hurts him!” Sam choked.

“He must,” Elrond said firmly. “Coughing will prevent secretions from pooling in the lungs and causing pneumonia.”

Frodo blinked to show he understood, then tried to struggle into a sitting position. Sam immediately braced him from behind and Frodo sagged back into his steadying grip, trembling. He coughed, his head drooping, and his entire body shuddered in pain.

“Can’t you do something?” Sam recognized the shrillness of his voice and fought to control himself. “When someone breaks a rib in the Shire, we support it with a long strip of tight linen.”

Elrond shook his head. “Compression wraps are unwise for broken ribs unless absolutely necessary for pain. Such wraps can impede proper circulation and keep one from taking deep breaths, which might increase of risk of lung infections. There is a type of wrap I will apply when we arrive at the inn, but not on a cold, dirty street. Master Frodo is having enough difficulty breathing; we must not add to it.”

“What can we do?” asked Legolas, kneeling opposite them. He reached to push Frodo’s sweat-stiff hair out of his eyes and Frodo smiled at him and tried to say something, but could not get the breath. The two litter bearers watched unhappily, powerless to help the one to whom they owed their lives and their world.

Elrond was silent, his hand resting on Frodo’s chest. He applied no pressure but waited, feeling the struggling chest rising and falling asymmetrically. “Lay him down, Samwise. Master Legolas, you will assist me in rolling Frodo onto his injured side.”

Objections sprang to Sam’s lips but he swallowed them, willing himself to trust the Elf-lord. He guided Frodo down and Legolas and Elrond gently rolled him over. With Legolas holding Frodo on his side, Elrond undid the clap of his mantle and bundled the heavy cloth into a neat roll which he slid it under Frodo’s ribs. Frodo’s tightly screwed eyes opened a little, acknowledging the lessening of the pain from the support.

“Better,” the healer breathed, watching Frodo’s face. “Master Legolas, you will walk beside the bearers and hold Frodo on his side. Do not allow him to roll on his back.” Legolas nodded impassively but Sam knew him well enough by now to see the worry in that fair face.

Elrond raised his head from his study of his patient’s face. “Master Samwise?”

Sam looked up. “Yes, sir?”

“Can you find the inn where we met you from here?”

Sam looked around then nodded decisively. “Yes, sir.”

Elrond motioned for the litter bearers to approach them. “Master Frodo does not have enough time for us to return to the Houses of Healing.” Sam choked and Legolas freed a hand for a moment to clasp his shoulder. Elrond looked at the hobbit, piercing grey eyes intent. “You will go to the inn and tell the innkeep I am bringing the Ring-bearer. He is to prepare a clean place for me to work.”

“Yes, sir,” Sam whispered. He gave Frodo’s hand another careful squeeze before struggling upright. Elrond’s eyes narrowed at the dirt on the bandages wrapped on Sam’s feet but he said nothing, bowing to the greater need.

At a gesture from Elrond, the bearers squatted again and began to lift the litter. Frodo’s eyes opened. “S–Sam–”

“Do not speak, Frodo,” Elrond told him.

“Sam … please…”

Sam hopped from foot to foot under the litter, too agitated to hold his place. “Is he all right? Does he need me?”

Elrond shook his head, a faint smile on his lips. “Master Legolas, it seems you will go in Master Samwise’s place.” He sighed. “You are swifter and it is better to spare Master Samwise’s feet. Sam will stay with his master.”

“Thank you,” Sam gulped. Legolas too looked relieved, understanding the bond between hobbits.

“Notify the innkeeper that I will need a clean, quiet private room, and ice. As much ice as he has. If there is a local healer, I would ask his aid and use of his mendicants.” Legolas bowed and was gone, his footfalls swift and silent as the cold breeze that stirred their cloaks.

Elrond swept up a startled Sam and lifted him up to the litter. “Stretch out behind Frodo,” Elrond ordered. “You must not constrict his breathing.” Sam fitted himself at Frodo’s back, terrified of bumping his master and hurting him. Seeing this, the Elf-lord’s stern expression softened. “Slide your arms around him, Samwise, and lean him against you. Gently. That’s right. Do not fear you will cause him pain; your presence is a comfort to him.”

Reassured, Sam tightened his arms around Frodo’s chest, careful to avoid the broken ribs. Frodo did not react; his eyes were closed again and his breathing fast and shallow. Elrond watched critically then said, “Good. Keep him on his side, Samwise. Watch his breathing. Let me know at once if anything changes.” The littler bearers adjusted the poles on their shoulders to accommodate the additional weight and looked at Elrond, awaiting the order to move.


“I’m here, sir,” Sam whispered. Frodo relaxed, slipping back into grey semi-consciousness as the men followed Lord Elrond. Sam raised his arm draped over Frodo’s side and turned his wrist to lay his palm over Frodo’s heart. Frodo’s weight on his pinned arm seemed no more than a feather. “I’m here.”

* * *

He would have to release the Man’s head so he could get enough air to talk, Merry thought reluctantly. Keeping his captive flat on his stomach on the ground might be safer, but no one could draw breath well enough to talk with his head pulled back at such an angle. He would not find out where Frodo was if the man passed out for want of air.

Merry freed the Man’s greasy hair and backed out of reach, resisting the urge to wipe his hand on his breeches. He kept to a crouch, sword raised and ready to leap forward to strike if he had to. “Don’t move,” he told his captive. “Keep your hands where I can see them.” He angled his sword to catch the high moon overhead, seeing the flash of light in the Man’s dark eyes. “I can still cut your throat before you can reach your blade.”

The man coughed and lowered his head to the ground, resting his chin on the cold cobblestones. He stared at Merry, breathing deeply, getting back the breath knocked out of him. “Thought I heard someone behind me. You the one that hit me? You’re a lot bigger than the other.”

Hit him? With the man now facing him and the moon above, Merry could see a dark bruise on the man’s temple. It did not matter – what mattered was that this man had confirmed Merry’s belief that he had seen another hobbit.

“Where is the Ring-bearer?” The man’s fast breathing caught and his hands curled into fists on the ground. “I heard you,” Merry told him. “I followed you. You were talking to yourself about ‘halflings.’ Where is he?” The man was silent.

“I saw you when we had lunch at Mikah’s inn,” Merry pressed. It was a lie – he had no memory of seeing this man. There had been so many Big People, and his attention had been wholly on the delicious fare set before him. How many hours ago had that been? Fighting down his rage, he prodded the man’s shoulder with the tip of his sword, slicing through cloak and rough jerkin to the flesh underneath.

The man jerked and cringed back.  “All right! All right!”

“Where is he?”

The man raised his head and Merry tensed, seeing something in that sly expression that unsettled him. “In an empty house. It’s a fair way back. You know the City?”

Merry would not admit to the brigand that he did not. Nor did he like the man’s sudden cooperativeness – he was not being told something. “You will take me there,” Merry stated, as if this were an unequivocal fact. “Get up – slowly.” He waved his sword threateningly, trying to buy himself time to think.

The man’s eyes followed the tip of his sword, mesmerized. Then his gaze lifted above Merry’s head and he stiffened. His eyes widened and his mouth sagged open, astonishment in every line of his body. Oh no, Merry thought, I won’t fall for that old trick–Then red light reflected in the man’s eyes and washed over his face. Red light glimmered on Merry’s blade. Merry stared at his red-tinted sword blankly, then despite himself, he turned around.

A great gout of flame was falling from the sky, shattering into flaming shreds that Merry realised must be debris. A building – no, more than one, buildingsexploding. Burning. Flames leapt into the night like the spears of the Rohirrim into the Enemy’s ranks. No, Merry thought, the Man           

Merry slammed to the cobbles, the man on top of him. Instinctively he flung out his arms, saving his face but sending his sword flying.His head hit the ground and his helm rang with the impact, snapping his head back on his neck to catch the man in the face. Bone crunched. Merry heard the Man cry out in pain and felt the weight shift off him. He scrambled forward on all fours, trying to put some space between them.

Fool! Merry raged at himself, whirling to face the man. He felt stunned; his limbs leaden, his ears ringing. The man must have been preparing himself for the attack as soon as he realised Merry would be distracted by the fire. The ruffian lay several paces away, swearing foully, one hand clamped over his nose as blood poured from it. Merry hoped it was broken.

“You little –“ Merry did not even know what that word meant. Glaring at Merry, the man staggered upright, the flow from his nose continuing unabated. “Gahhh!”

Get up, get up! Merry thought, struggling to his feet. The notion of fleeing crossed his mind and was dismissed in the same instant. He was not leaving without knowledge of Frodo’s whereabouts. The Man’s nose indeed canted to the side and Merry grinned up at him evilly, deliberately goading the villain. The man snarled something unintelligible and flung himself at Merry.

The surprise on the villain’s face was almost comical as Merry dropped flat on his back and his tough hobbit-feet caught the man right in the stomach. The man soared over Merry’s head and landed hard on the cobbles, the breath knocked from him a second time. He thrashed on the ground, making little whimpering sounds. His hand knocked against something hard and Merry’s heart sank as he saw it was his sword.

The man closed his hand around Merry’s sword and he raised it as if he could not believe his luck. He glanced over at the hobbit, seeing in Merry’s face his dismay and anger. Grinning maliciously, he staggered to his feet, waving it in gleeful sweeps over his head. No doubt it seemed silly and undersized to him, but it was Merry’s sword and Merry meant to have it back. Hobbit-quick, he launched himself at the man and punched him as hard as he could in the stomach. The man “ooooff!”ed and doubled over, falling to his knees.

Merry leaped for his sword, using both hands to drag the man’s fingers apart.  A red haze seemed to swim before his eyes; he was as furious as he had ever been. The man’s hand opened and his sword came loose and Merry snatched it up.

Stars flashed before his eyes and Merry slid to the ground, near insensible. Only then did he realise he had been struck. Hands groped along his body and seized his surcoat, dragging him onto his back. His arm was being raised. Then his wrist was slammed back on the cobbles, wrenching a cry from him as the sword clattered from his grip. Stunned and with pain searing through every nerve, Merry fought down the wail rising in his throat. The wisdom of Boromir’s words aside, he had lost this fight.

The Man pulled off his helm and tossed it away to rock unheeded on the cobbles. Imitating what Merry had done to him earlier, the villain pulled Merry’s head back at a painful angle, baring his throat. Merry felt air shift against his skin as the Man pressed his own sword against him. “My turn now, little halfling,” the man snarled.

* TBC *

Chapter Fourteen 14 -  In the Light of the Dying Moon

“The King will find you,” Merry gasped. His head was being pulled back at an agonizing angle, cruelly and deliberately. The man’s grip on his hair was bringing tears to his eyes, turning the moon-washed street into a hazy halo of light. “I am his friend. He will never stop hunting you.”

“He’ll have to find me first,” Lammor growled. “And your dead body won’t tell him nothing.” The fist clenched and Merry felt prinks of pain as hair ripped from his scalp. “Not that I’m staying to find out. There’s ways out of the city he don’t know about, him and his advisors and his Rangers and his fancy Elf friends. I’ll be gone long before they find you.”

“No,” a voice behind Merry stated flatly. “You won’t.”

Two voices, Merry realised, so alike in pitch and timber they sounded as one. Merry’s breath went out of him in a whoosh of relief. The grip on his hair tightened as his captor turned to look behind him, then Merry felt the hand tremor as a shudder passed through the Man.

“Release the hobbit,” one of the voices commanded.

“And do not hurt him,” ordered the second. “Lay the sword on the ground – slowly.” The grip on his hair eased and Merry heard the clatter of his sword as the man dropped it on the cobblestones. The moment the man was off him, Merry scrambled sideways on all fours and snatched up his sword, not daring to turn around until he was out of the man’s reach.

Elladan smiled at him from behind his great bow, the point of its arrow never wavering from the Man’s heart. Elrohir had drawn his sword but he too spared the hobbit a smile as the grey stallion he rode pranced nearer. Its great head came down to nuzzle Merry and whuffle into his hair. Merry gulped and managed a laugh, stroking its nose and receiving a sloppy lipping of his hands in response.

“Hullo,” Merry said tremulously, hearing his voice shake.

His eyes on the Elves, the man tried to retreat a step. Instantly the stallion laid back his ears and extended his neck past Merry, his great chisel-like teeth bared. It nickered warningly. The man blanched and stood very still.

Elrohir glanced at his brother and Elladan nodded. Sheathing his sword, Elrohir swung down from his mount. He gasped as a moment later, short but strong arms locked around his middle and were hugging him tightly. Elrohir smiled and returned the embrace, raising a hand to stroke the young hobbit’s hair.

“It’s all right, Merry,” Elrohir whispered. He frowned as he felt the hobbit shaking. Gently unwinding the arms, he knelt and looked into Merry’s face. “Are you all right, Merry? Did he hurt you?”

Merry drew a deep breath and raised his head to look the elf in the eye. “I’m all right. I’m not hurt.” After a moment, he added, “Thank you.” Elrohir smiled at him again, relief and joy in his eyes, and Merry could not help but smile back.

“Do not.” Elladan’s brisk warning made them both turn.

The man slid his hand away from the knife in his belt and held up his hands, palms outward.He smiled ingratiatingly, the sweat on his face shining in themoonlight. “I’m not going anywheres,” he assured the elf. “Sir.”

“Wise of you,” Elladan remarked dryly.

Careful never to place himself in his brother’s line of fire, Elrohir relieved the man of the knife. Elladan kept his draw as his brother searched the man for other weapons, controlling his horse with his knees. “What is your name?”

“Lammor,” the man replied, disgruntled. Calmer now, Merry retrieved the man’s sword and handed it to Elrohir for safekeeping.

“How did you find me?” Merry asked as he trailed Elrohir back to the horse.

“We just followed the sounds of battle. Aragorn told us where there is shouting and swearing, there is usually a hobbit.” Merry tried to marshal a glare but he could not maintain it, sagging against the horse’s legs in weariness.

“And we were searching for you,” Elladan added, his gaze never moving from their prisoner. “We met two of Aragorn’s search parties; they alerted us that you had not returned with Prince Faramir. Is Pippin with you?”

Fear stirred in Merry’s heart. “Pippin? No, I haven’t seen him since we split up to search for Frodo – that was hours ago. You mean no one has seen him?”

Their faces told him the answer even before Elladan said gently, “We have had no word of him, Merry. We went to all the Gates, both greater and lesser, and relayed Aragorn’s order that they be closed. No one there had seen him. But Frodo has been found and is in the care of our father.”

Elladan’s last words, meant as a reassurance, did not succeed in its purpose. Something in the elf’s careful words frightened Merry. “In the care? What does that mean? Is he all right?”

The twins hesitated, looking over his head at each other. Merry went cold and his heart began to trip. “Elladan? Is Frodo all right?”

“No, Merry,” the elf replied gravely. “He has been badly injured. A fall, one of the soldiers said, then harm from a fire, though we were told that is not so bad.  But Elrond is with him, and there is no better healer in all of Middle-earth. Can you doubt it, after he saved Frodo from the Morgul-shard?”

Relief made Merry weak. He swayed and Elrohir hastened to grasp his arm. “I’m all right,” he said faintly. “I just … I haven’t eaten anything since lunch.”

“That, at least, we can remedy,” Elrohir said. He guided the hobbit over to his horse, which dipped its head so Merry could scratch between its eyes. Friendship renewed, the horse held perfectly still so Elrohir could lift Merry onto its back.

 “You, Man – Lammor,” Elladan said. “Walk.”

“I don’t know nothing,” Lammor whined, raising his hands. “That halfling attacked me. I was just walking along, and he snuck up on me and attacked me.”

“He knows where they kept Frodo,” Merry retorted. “He was in on it.”

“They made me,” Lammor shrilled. “Dharnor and Brin. I ran as soon as I could get away from ‘em.”

Rage flared in Merry. “You told me someone hit you!” He curbed his tongue, thinking. “Pippin… That’s when you deserted, isn’t it? Was the house already on fire, and Frodo still inside?”

The man looked between the Elves and the hobbit, almost as if he did not know which to fear most. “I don’t know nothing. The house was burning when I woke up.”

“Peregrin Took saved your life,” Elladan told him flatly. “You would be a burned corpse with the others had his actions not saved you from the flames.”

“They’re dead?” Merry asked, his heart lifting at the news. The next moment he felt shamed, knowing how horrified Frodo would be at his joy that the men were dead. He leaned forward and the horse shifted, uncertain if it was being given a command. “Why hasn’t Pippin shown up?”

Lammor refused to meet his eyes. Merry twitched the reins and the horse moved nearer. “Where is my cousin?” He drew his sword, rage and fear burning in him like a brand. “Where? Where is he?”

“I don’t know!” Lammor cried. “I tell you I don’t know! Get him off me!”

“The King will question him, Merry,” Elladan said grimly. “Put up your sword.”

Reluctantly, Merry did. Elladan nodded in approval. To the man he said, “And I advise you to answer truthfully, and quickly. He is not gentle with those who harm the people he loves.” He jerked the bow. For a moment Merry wondered at the elf’s strength, to hold an archer’s stance while ahorse and for so long.

The man stumbled into a walk and Elladan fell in behind him, still at full draw. His horse’s reins dangled; neither rider or mount needing them. The stallion’s teeth were bared to bite, mirroring the mood of its master.

To his embarrassment, Merry’s stomach chose that moment to growl – loudly. Elrohir handed him his helm, then placed a squarish packet into his hands.  “Here,” Elrohir told him as he swung himself up and settled himself behind Merry, “Being friends with hobbits has taught us the importance of always carrying food.”

The package felt oddly cool and … slick. Saliva flooded Merry’s mouth and he tore away the leaf wrapping.  “Lembas!”

* * *

At its leader’s order, the orc who had come down the rope first drew its knife and came forward, its yellow fangs glinting in the moonlight. Pippin’s heart hammered in his chest and he tried to rear back, but the ropes were bound around him too tightly. He could not move as the creature raised the knife and brandished before his face, taunting him. The other snarled at it and cuffed it and it cringed, then sidled around the leader and began to saw at the ropes holding Pippin to the creature’s back.

“Hurry up,” the leader growled, shifting its shoulders like a horse twitching off a fly. “The Ring-bearer stinks.” Pippin bit his tongue on a retort; the stench of the creature had near overwhelmed him and he was as eager to be free of it as it was of him. More eager.

The leader’s impatient movements were not helping the orc trying to cut him free; it was being forced to follow as the other kept circling the swinging rope, barking at the one following to speed its descent.

“Move back, then,” Shunt called back, “Lessen you want me to drop on you.”

The leader lurched out of the way and the orc cutting Pippin free hastily moved its knife before it cut other than hemp. Pippin closed his eyes and sagged against the orc’s back, refusing to watch the last strands part. When all three orcs were down, they would take him far from Minas Tirith and from Merry and from Frodo and Sam, and they would hurt him until he died. Pippin buried his face into the orc’s stinking back and hot tears filled his eyes.

At least we are away from Frodo, he thought, wishing at that moment nothing more than to see his cousin’s face. Had Aragorn seen his signal and reached Frodo in time? He would never know. The thought that he might have failed his cousin – worse, caused his cousin’s agonizing death  – suddenly overwhelmed him and he shuddered. Acid burned in his throat and he fought against being sick, knowing for a certainty that if he vomited on the orcs, his torture would begin that much sooner.

He swallowed it down with an effort, feeling it burn down his throat into his empty stomach. Pippin looked up past the descending orc to the white wall of the city, the long, long rope looking like a crack in the stone. He realised the moon must be going down to cast the light so. Would anyone find the rope, and connect it with his disappearance? How long until Aragorn heard?

The orc freeing him moved the knife to the last rope binding him to leader’s back, tied under his legs, and began to saw. It was taking its time, being careful not to cut the larger, stronger orc. There would be no better chance to escape, Pippin thought. One still on the rope, one facing away, and (unfortunately) one inches from him with a knife. He tried not to look at the knife; at how close it was, at how sharp. Ready there, Pip? he asked himself. It’s now or never, my lad.Pippin dropped an inch as the rope stretched, then as the last strand parted, he fell to the earth and was on his feet and running.  

But he had not counted on the effects of being lowered down a high wall with ropes tied around his body and legs, cutting off the flow of blood to his limbs. His body did not obey him. Instead of a long leap and a fast sprint, Pippin stumbled forward and his feet tangled with each other. His legs promptly gave out from under him. He fell forward, throwing out his arms to break his fall. The ground came up to meet him and he banged his chin on the rocky earth. Stars flashed before his eyes and he tasted dust and grit.

For a moment the orcs stared at him and his pitiful attempt at escape in astonished silence. Then the leader leaned over Pippin and began to laugh. It was a harsh, ugly sound. Raising a foot, it put it on Pippin’s shoulder, pinning him in place. His face burning, Pippin closed his eyes, the threatened tears starting to course down his cheeks.

The orc laughed. “Weak little Ring-bearer! Can’t even stand up! You’ll have to come up with more backbone if you’re to be good sport.”

Shunt released the rope and dropped to the earth with a thud that Pippin felt jar his bones. They surrounded him, now. He felt vulnerable on the ground, defenceless, frightened that he could not see all of them at once. He tried to slide out from under the imprisoning foot, but the orc just bore down, crushing him. He stopped trying to move and the pressure eased off a bit.

“Soft,” Shunt sneered. “It will be tasty fare, beaten to tender. Let’s start now.”

“No! The sun will be coming up. We take it far from here, where no one can see or hear. There are Elves up there – maybe they hear. I’ve waited too long to give up this prize.”

“I want to hear it scream!”

The argument escalated and the orcs began to shove and push each other.Pippin could not tell if the third orc was for or against torturing him now; it cringed away from the larger ones and keep peering up the wall, clearly fearing pursuit. Go ahead, Pippin thought at the quarrelling orcs, kill each other. That’s what your kind does. 

But the leader ended the dispute by drawing its knife. “Not here! I want it where I have all the time I want. It might last for days, if we’re careful.”

Shunt backed up, its eyes on the blade. “Just a few screams,” it begged, staring at Pippin. “To repay it for biting me.”

The leader licked its muzzle, its desire for blood warring with its better sense. “It was a long drop down the walls ... and it was heavy…” Claws clenching around the knife, it angled it to catch the last light of the dying moon. “Yesssss…

“Maybe just a little fun… All right, as a foretaste for later. But we must keep it quiet.”

“Cut out its tongue,” Shunt suggested. “It can’t make much noise, then.” It grinned down at Pippin, delighted to see its threat fulfilled. “Just bleating noises. And it will stay whole ... mostly.”

But the one who did not speak at least some of the Common Tongue seemed agitated. It pointed at Pippin, gesturing urgently, snarling something in its hideous language.

The leader yowled and stamped forward. Pippin cringed back, fearing it was about to kick him. He tried to curl himself into a ball and protect his head, but the creature reached down and dragged him up by his arm. Pippin nearly cried out at the pain, feeling as if his arm were being torn from its socket. But it wasn’t his arm that interested the creature. In a surge of fear and sickness, Pippin saw the creature was holding him by his right arm, its jaw sagging in disbelief as it stared at his hand and the five intact fingers there.

* TBC *

(A/N: My deepest thanks to Elemmírë for her generous advice in the correct method of administering medical aid to Frodo. I wanted to get it right, and have done my best. Much of the medical detail in this chapter is lifted verbatim from Elemmírë's brilliantly-explained synopsis. Readers with delicate sensibilities might want to skip certain parts. Elemmírë, thank you. All mistakes are my own.)

Chapter Fifteen – In a Room Blazing with Light

Elrond Half-elven, Firstborn, Lord of Imladris and the greatest healer in Middle-earth, strode into the courtyard of the Inn in a swirl of robes, panting litter-bearers and shouting people. The stars were fading and the sky above was lit with silver and amber and orange. Those hardy souls whose curiosity or gratitude to the Ring-bearer had kept them until dawn immediately began calling for Mikah, bellowing at each other, and offering their help. In their anxiousness they crowded around the litter, unintentionally bringing the bearers to a halt.

Sam raised his head from Frodo’s back, struggling to divide his concentration between the people and counting each faltering breath from the still figure he cradled. Big People were milling around them, their faces drawn with grief and fear and anger. Many wept, holding out their arms to help. But the offers were slowing them, and Elrond had said Frodo had no more time.

“Sam … what…” Frodo shifted restlessly and Sam felt long eyelashes blink against his forearm, a brush of spider-silk on his skin.

“It’s all right, sir,” Sam whispered. Frodo’s head moved and an ear tilted back. “It’s just the people of the city,” Sam elaborated, knowing Frodo would insist on knowing more. “They’re glad we found you and that you’re going to be all right.”

“Good … of them…” Frodo said no more and the warm weight on Sam’s arm increased as Frodo’s head sagged back down.

“Yessir.” You’re going to be all right, Sam begged silently. You are, you are, you are…

“My lord! Lord Elrond! This way!” Waving frantically, Mikah was hopping from foot to foot in the doorway of his inn, sweat glistening on his face. “Let him through!” he appealed to the crowd, but the noise and confusion were too great for them to heed.


A pin might be heard dropping in the absolute silence following Elrond’s roar. The crowd parted before the litter like a field of soft soil before the plough. Mikah bowed as Elrond swept past him, the Elf-lord’s hand still on Frodo’s shoulder. Sam tightened his hold across Frodo’s chest carefully, holding his master immobile between them. Angling his head up, he could just see Mikah’s florid, worried face over Frodo’s shoulder. “I’ve a private room in the back, milord,” Mikah told Elrond, “cleaned as best we can on short notice. There is hot water and ice and the nearest healer. Lord Legolas–”

“Is here,” Legolas’ calm voice interrupted him. “How fares Frodo?”

“We have no time,” Elrond replied tersely. “Show me the room.”

It was a small room, but warmth radiated from the hearth and from sconces blazing on the walls, their light supplemented by many lanterns set around a wooden trestle table. One of the tavern tables, Sam saw, scrubbed till it shone. As they entered the door, a man and a woman where shaking out a clean white bedsheet and laying it over the wood.

The bearers began to lower the pallet. “No!” Elrond said. “Not on the table. Master Legolas!” The Wood-elf glided to the litter and Sam reluctantly released Frodo and wiggled back, allowing Legolas to lift him to the floor. Sam scooted out of the way and turned to watch apprehensively.

“Ready?” Elrond said briefly, glancing at Legolas. Without waiting for the young elf’s reply, he continued, “One. Two. Three.” On three, Elrond took Frodo’s head and Legolas his legs, and they transferred the semi-conscious hobbit to the table.

“Frodo is in for a surprise,” Legolas remarked with an odd smile.

The man turned around, his arms full of blankets. “Peter!” Sam cried in shock. “I mean, Mr. Peter, sir! And Mistress Marly!”

“Master Samwise,” returned the man, smiling broadly. Marly laughed, the clear, joyous peal Sam remembered from the Fellowship’s brief respite in their small, humble home. She walked forward and knelt and hugged him and Sam returned the embrace, laughing a little himself as tears gathered in his eyes.

“But – but – why haven’t we seen you before? Why didn’t you come to the Palace?”

Peter’s face sobered. “We did, Sam. Many times. But the soldiers would never let us through, or agree ‘ta carry a message to the King. To Aragorn,” he said in a soft, low voice filled with wonder.

“Everyone in the city wanted to talk to the King,” Marly said briskly. “Who were we to claim special consideration? They didn’t believe us when we said we were friends, and that he had told us to come to him.”

Sam was still trying to take it all in. “You left your town and ended up here...”

Marly nodded. “Yes, we’ve been here for months. We had to leave … after … well, after all that happened.”

“Our neighbours were less than understanding,” Peter added dryly. “And the commander of the guards seemed to think we were planning on torching the rest of the town.”

Marly’s lined face beamed. “Peter’s training as a healer, Sam. A real one. And we have a nice little house and Rich and Brion are going to school. Rich wants to be a healer, too. He wants to specialize in hobbits.”

“Thanks to the gold you left in the cushion,” Peter said, his craggy face shining with gratitude.

Sam shook his head. “You thank Mr. Merry for that, sir. It was his idea.”

“I want to,” Peter replied, serious now. “Except the soldiers say he is missing. As is Pippin. And Master Frodo…” He trailed off and his eyes turned to the activity around the table. Elrond had slid a small pillow under Frodo’s head and was removing his waistcoat and the grubby shirt beneath. Frodo’s eyes were closed and still and flat, the uneven rise and fall of his chest was pronounced. “We … we couldn’t believe…” Peter continued almost in a whisper, “when we heard. That you and he … that he … it was him that defeated the Dark Lord and ended the War and the darkness. And you were in our house, and we didn’t treat him…”

“And now this, after all he did for everyone,” Marly murmured. “We couldn’t help…” She blinked back tears but one escaped and ran down her cheek. Legolas put a hand on her arm and startled, she gazed at him with the same awe she had shown in that little house, not long ago but so far away.

“No,” Legolas answered. “You treated us with honour and trust and you risked your lives and the lives of your sons to help us. Had you not given Frodo aid when he needed it most, he might not have survived to complete his quest.” The elf smiled, his clear eyes distant and somehow sorrowful. “We will talk later, my friends. Master Peter, Lord Elrond requests you assist him.”

Peter gave them a short bow and another, deeper bow to the Elf-lord, as if he could not believe he was face-to-face with legend. Sam saw that while they had been talking, Elrond had removed objects from his case and was arranging them to his satisfaction. Some steamed in bubbling pots of water on the hearth, some gleamed with a greenish, pungent liquid he was wiping on the blades. Blades, Sam thought, Elrond’s going to cut him.

Elrond looked around the room. “Master Mikah, it would be better if there were fewer people here.” The litter-bearers nodded and bowed, as did Mikah. After exchanging a few words in Elvish with Elrond, Legolas followed them. Sam struggled to fit them to the few words of Elvish he knew, but he was just too tired and discombobulated, and even his thoughts seemed tangled. He shut the door after them. Elrond did not even suggest Sam go with them, knowing better by now.

Elrond began washing Frodo’s chest, murmuring to himself in his own language at the scrapes and bruises marring the pale skin. Most of the burns were confined to the hobbit’s hands and feet; a good patch of foothair had been singed off one foot, revealing blistered skin. Peter folded a blanket over Frodo's lower body as the healer’s long, slender fingers touched here, and here, and lingered, probing and measuring. Frodo groaned faintly as Elrond pushed carefully in one place and his eyes struggled open.

Light burned into Frodo’s eyes, blinding him. Then Elrond leaned over, blocking the lamps, and Frodo knew him. His eyes darted about and Sam leaned into his line of vision with a quavering smile. Frodo relaxed slightly and Elrond did not rush him, allowing him to take in the room. When his eyes fastened on Peter and Marly, his mouth opened and he made a little unheard,“Oh!”

Husband and wife grinned widely. “Well, hello again Master Baggins,” Marly told him, and Peter laughed. Frodo smiled back at them, his eyes shining.

Elrond had been pouring liquid from a bottle onto a cloth, and now he moved to Frodo’s head. “You will sleep now, Frodo,” the healer told him. “And when you wake you will be uncomfortable but on your way to your old self.”

Apprehension showed on Frodo’s face. His eyes sought Sam’s and Sam winked at him. “Be up and around in no time, sir.”

Elrond placed the cloth over Frodo’s nose and mouth and pressed gently. “Breathe, Frodo. Breathe.”

But Frodo’s eyes widened suddenly and he jerked his head away from the cloth. “No,” he gasped, “Pippin…”

Sam caught the edge of the table and pulled himself up, drawing Frodo’s eyes to him. “We found his uniform and his sword, sir. Strider’s looking for him. Everyone’s looking for him. I bet by the time you’re awake, he and Mr. Merry both will be right here and itching to tell you ‘bout their adventures.” Sam’s smile was ghastly. “Best get some rest while you can.”

Frodo’s hands plucked at the bedsheet nervously, but he did not resist the cloth. After but a few moments, his hands were still and his face smoothed out. With a small sigh his head canted to the side, looking as if he were merely sleeping.

“Come with me, Master Samwise,” Marly said briskly. “You and I will wait in the corner.”

“But–” Sam began.

“It is better, Master Samwise,” Elrond interrupted, looking up from his inspection of his instruments. “If I have need of anything, I will inform you.”

Sam sank down on a stool and Marly took the chair next to him, her stout form radiating warmth. Unconsciously, Sam leaned against her, his eyes on the table.

“His lung has been punctured by a broken rib,” Elrond said to Peter, sweeping his long hands above Frodo’s chest.

Peter nodded, his face intent. “I’d say two, maybe even three ribs, my lord, from how one side rises an’ the other doesn’t.”

“Well done,” Elrond murmured with approval. Peter ducked his head but the gaze he turned on the Elf-lord was worshipful. He raised his head and listened intently as Elrond continued, as much to inform Sam and Marly as Peter. “Blood and air are trapped, causing the lung to collapse. The pressure from the blood and air is pressing on his functioning lung with every breath.

“I will remove the air and blood from the pleural space, allowing the lung to expand.” Elrond leaned over Frodo again, feeling with those long fingers. “Air is trapped in the tissues of the body.” He pressed down and Sam could hear the faintest popping, crackling sound, like walking over dried straw. “It will be reabsorbed as the swelling dissipates, but this injury is too grave to allow it to resolve itself in a few weeks, as would a smaller tension hemopneumothorax. We will have to use a needle decompression and a chest tube.”

“I understand,” Peter breathed. He wheeled and walked briskly to the door, “Mikah,” he called, “we’ll be needing a long thin hollow needle and hollow leather tube and two – no, three – of your clean wine bottles. The ones that have been put in boiling water in preparation for new wine.”

“The bottles only, Master Mikah,” Elrond said from behind him. “I have the other implements here.”

Sam frowned at the long, flexible tube of leather and the thin, hollow needle Elrond was swabbing with the green liquid. “You’re going to sew him up with that needle, my lord? It’s too thin and long.”

“It is not for sewing, Master Gamgee, but for siphoning. I am going to insert it into Master Frodo’s chest and remove the air and fluid with it.”

Sam’s painfully empty stomach did a somersault right down to his throbbing feet. “Oh,” he replied, enlightened if not reassured. Marly patted his arm.

Elrond held out his hands and Peter poured more of the green liquid over them, then over his own hands, unmindful that it splattered on the floor. Elrond waved his hands in the air a moment, then leaned over Frodo again and placed a finger on the collarbone of his injured side. Sam watched as the long finger traced to the middle of the bone, then from there down to Frodo’s chest, stopping between his second and third ribs. Frodo mumbled something and a faint laugh curved his lips, reminding Sam of how ticklish his master could be.

That small giggle left Sam unprepared for the swiftness of Elrond’s next movement. Keeping a finger over the hollow top of the needle, Elrond jabbed the needle into Frodo's chest, then released his finger. Sam heard the faint hiss of rushing air. “Good,” Elrond muttered.

Sam’s stomach did another dip-and-roll that left him feeling ill. “Ah, he’s breathing better,” Peter murmured and Sam fought to steady his own breathing, lest he be sent from the room like a faunt.

There was a knock on the door and Sam jumped up, glad to have an excuse to move. Mikah stood there with a cloth-draped tray between his hands. Sam took it with a nod, careful not to wobble the tall bottles on it. He carried the tray to the head of the table and started reluctantly back to the corner, but Elrond stopped him.

“Master Samwise, Mistress Marly, your assistance please. One on each side of the table.” Sam rounded Frodo’s head and stopped, doing his best to stand tall, afraid those sharp elven eyes would see his unsteadiness. “Hold his hands. Do not allow him to move.” Elrond laid the glittering blade against Frodo’s skin and sliced. A thin line of blood appeared, then rapidly began to well. Elrond laid down the knife and carefully slid two of his fingers into the wound. Flesh gaped and blood poured from the wound.

Sam snapped his eyes shut, but he wasn’t fast enough. The darkness was shot with fairy lights, and the room spun around him.

“Master Samwise!”

Elrond’s voice was like a bucket of cold water sluiced over his head. Sam shuddered and leaned against the table, vaguely aware that he was clutching Frodo’s hand so tightly he would leave bruises. He had seen this done before, when Elrond has searched for and removed the Morgul shard from his master’s body after Weatherop. He understood now Elrond’s wisdom in placing the hobbits on the floor, out of direct sight of the surgery.

“I’m all right, sir,” he managed, eyes still clenched shut. “Sorry.” You git, Sam railed at himself (in a voice that sounded remarkably like his Gaffer’s), you’ve helped birth lambs and goats and sewn up hobbit-folk more’n once yourself. Steady on there, Samwise!

Elrond did not reply to Sam’s assertion. In the silence, Sam heard wet, swishing sounds. His gorge rose and he fought it down ruthlessly.

“No bones fragments,” Elrond reported, his voice detached and calm. “The ribs are set. Master Peter, if you would…” Curiosity and dread made Sam squinch his eyes open a slit. The Man was handing Elrond a hose of boiled leather near the width of his garden hose back home, and longer than he was tall. Elrond bent over Frodo again and guided the first few inches of the hose into the incision he had made. Sam clamped his eyes shut again but could not block his ears against the pop he heard.

“My lord,” came Marly’s hesitant voice, “there’s blood…”

“Peace, Mistress. The hose is imbedded in the pleural space surrounding the lung. It did not pierce the lung.” Oh, thought Sam, I should have eaten that sea slug instead a’ foisting it off on Mr. Strider … this sickness is paying me back for that bit of wickedness… Fingers tightened against his own and Frodo gave a small whimper. Sam curled his hand around Frodo’s and thought fiercely, No, master, sleep…

“I’ve the drug ready,” Peter said. Sam would hear the worry in the Man’s voice. He smelled that sharp, pungent smell and heard a bottle tipped into cloth.

“Not yet. It is chancy to give hobbits drugs brewed for larger folk. I do not want to give him more if it can be avoided.”

Long moments passed in which Sam didn’t hear anything else that made him queasy. He cranked one eye open cautiously. Peter was sponging the blood away and Elrond was pressing down on a sticky bandage around the tube. Sam tore his gaze away and stared determinedly at the joining of the wall and ceiling above Marly’s head.

“That’s tight,” Elrond said with satisfaction. “Air cannot escape the bandage. Is it draining?”

There was a muffled reply. Sam blinked; Peter had disappeared. A moment later he stood up. “Aye. Those narrow-necked wine bottles will do half the trick an’ gravity will do the rest. With the bottle on the floor, the other end of the hose just comes to where the bottle widens. How do you sterilize the sealing wax, my lord? And make those bandages air and water-tight?”

“I will teach you, if you wish,” Elrond offered. Peter’s broad face broke into a smile. “Another time, though, as our patient still needs us. “ The Elf-lord fell silent, listening as well as watching. Sam concentrated; he too could hear Frodo’s breathing improving, and see that his chest rose and fell more naturally.

“He’s pinking up nicely,” Peter murmured. “D’you think we should put in a second chest tube?” Sam clung to the edge of the table and gulped.

Elrond considered. “One placed near the top of the lung and the another near the bottom would be desirable, but I do not wish to stress Master Frodo further. He has recently been ill and has not yet recovered from his ordeal. And hobbits are small … one will do, unless there are …complications.”

“Complications?” Marly asked.

Elrond bent to examine the tube, then Frodo’s face. “Hemorrhage is the most immediate. Lack of air for too long … and the inhalation of smoke. Infection. Pneumonia.” His hands passed over the pulse-point at Frodo’s throat, over his nose and mouth, then lifted an eyelid to examine the crescent of blue beneath. “Worst would be the need for a thoracotomy.”

Sam’s head was swimming. He held onto Frodo’s hand as if it were his lifeline. “Thor … thora…”

“Opening Frodo’s chest,” Elrond supplied, holding up a long knife to examine it.

Sam swayed and from a great distance, he heard Marly cry out. His legs gave out from under him and he hit the floor with a thud. His last thought before darkness rolled over him was that he'd take fainting over being sick any day.

* TBC *

Chapter Sixteen – Inside and Outside of White Stone Walls

Sated with lembas and lulled by the Elf-horse’s soothing stride, Merry fought against sleep by imagining Aragorn’s wrath when one of the Men who had kidnapped Frodo was delivered to him. He, Merry, has all sorts of blood-thirsty suggestions to get the Man to talk. Darting an evil look at Lammor’s back; he was pleased to see the Man panting and gasping and riddled with sweat as he stumbled ahead of Elladan’s stallion. Good, thought Merry, then wondered if the Rohirrim’s rough sense of justice was rubbing off on him.

Suddenly he felt Elrohir jerk in the saddle. He tore his mind from contemplating all the ways he would like this Man to pay and leaned back to look up into the elf’s face. Elrohir’s eyes were locked with those of his brother. Elladan had exchanged his bow for his sword but it was not actually necessary to subdue their prisoner; Elladan’s stallion walked behind the Man, ears still flat and hoping for an excuse to bite.

“What?” Merry said. “What is it? I didn’t hear anything.”

The twins stared at each other. Elrohir’s right eyebrow rose and Elladan nodded infinitesimally. As one they urged their horses to a fast walk, forcing Lammor to break into a lurching run.

“You were too busy staring daggers at the man,” Elrohir returned gently. “Merry, you must not let anger consume you.”

Merry flushed, knowing his friends understood him all too well. There was enough light now for the Elves to see his chagrin, and they smiled at him. Then Elrohir returned to the hobbit’s question.

“We heard our father … shout.”

“Bellow, actually,” Elladan put in, watching their captive carefully while not appearing to do so. They paused at an intersection and he moved his horse forward to evaluate a street blocked with rubble. Shaking his head, he motioned for them to stay on the main road. “Father was the herald of Gil-galad. Dear Ada can make himself heard over a battlefield, did he wish it.”

Merry strained his ears but he could hear nothing. Both Elves were also listening, though it was difficult to hear anything over Lammor’s gasps and the ring of the horses’ hooves against the cobblestones. He looked up at Elrohir again. “What was he shouting about?”

“We don’t know,” Elladan answered. “I could not make out the words. But I think we need to find out.”

“Milords,” Lammor whined. “I can’t keep running like this. I’m about done in. Have mercy, masters.”

Merry’s rage flared into new life. “You didn’t show my cousin much mercy, did you? You left him to burn to death!”

Elladan kneed his mount forward and caught Lammor by his dirty collar. In one deceptively easy movement, the elf hauled the man into the air and across his horse’s withers. Lammor choked and kicked, the stallion’s pommel digging into his stomach. “I suggest you be still,” Elladan told him conversationally. “My horse likes to bite annoying legs and hands.”

Lammor groaned and let his head bump into the horse’s side as both stallions broke into a trot.

* * *

“It cannot be! No! No!”

Pippin dangled at the end of the orc’s arm, the five betraying fingers waving as he flailed helplessly. The creature held him effortlessly above the ground, and surely his arm was being pulled from his socket. The pain made him forget his bruised face and other aches, and he had to clench his teeth against a wail.

“You got the wrong one!” Shunt screamed. “This is one of the others!”

“It – no – it said it was the Ring-bearer –”

The third orc pulled out its knife and Pippin’s heart sank right down to his toes. They were going to kill him now, and he would never find out if Frodo was all right and if he and Merry would get home and if Sam would ever marry his sweetheart. He wanted to see his mum’s face. And hear his Da’s patient, exasperated voice, and even those of his three chattering sisters. All of a sudden his family, all his family, seemed more precious than he had ever realised, and he hated the orcs for taking that away from him.

The leader screamed something at the other and waved Pippin about as if that would change the evidence of their eyes. The already abused cloth of Frodo’s jacket gave and all three of the orcs momentarily stared as the leader was left holding only a brown velvet sleeve. Pippin dropped to the earth and lay there, too stunned to move.

“It’s your fault! All that hiding and waiting, and forging in rubbish heaps! For this? It won’t even make a good meal! You said we were to have the Ring-bearer!” The last words were screamed, froth and spittle flying from Shunt’s mouth. Drawing its sword from its sheath, it leaped over Pippin and launched itself at the leader.

The leader fell back, tugging on its own weapon. The small orc circled to the leader’s side and tried to come up behind it to strike. The leader spun and leaped to the side and the smaller orc’s blade fell short. Snarling at the other two, the leader backed away, its small beady eyes darting from enemy to enemy.

Life was returning to Pippin’s arm in an agonizing rush. He curled up slightly and tried to force himself to think. The ground was cold, so cold, and the growing light above was yet too weak to shed any warmth. Shunt was driving the leader farther and farther from him while the smallest one kept trying to get behind it. The leader was spinning from side to side, trying to keep both in sight, the object of their contention for the moment forgotten.

Trying to move as little as possible, Pippin began dragging himself closer to the wall. Inching along on his side, he pushed with his feet and dragged himself with his one good arm, the one he had been hoisted by throbbing too much to use. The orcs did not notice, either too intent on their revenge, or not caring. Even as he crept away, Pippin wondered why – he could scarcely climb up the wall, and it stretched before him like a great, like a great … wall, thought Pippin. How am I ever to get away?

A shriek brought his attention back to the orcs. The little one had marked the leader; blood streamed from its side. Cursing, the leader lunged at it and the little one danced away, the first rays of sun glinting on its fangs. Waving its sword in the air, it shouted something derisive and insulting; Pippin could tell by the expression on the leader’s face. Unwisely, it turned its back on Shunt.

Shunt covered the last distance in a great bound. Pippin wanted to close his eyes, wanted to turn away, but he could not. He seemed to see the orc slowing, its sword swinging ‘round for a killing thrust. Sun flashed off the razored edge. Then the leader seemed to realize its danger, for it started to turn back, and the smallest orc leaped forward and drove its knife into the leader’s back just as Shunt rammed his blade forward through its stomach.  

It screamed, a high wavering screech that burned along Pippin’s nerves like fire. He fetched up against the wall and clapped his hands over his ears, but the screams went on as the other two orcs slashed and stabbed. Shivering in horror, he could only stare as the orcs murdered their leader.

Shunt at last pulled back and leaned on his sword, panting. “Now we do what we want,” it said, glancing at him. “And we want to get away from this stone city. Find a dark, quiet place, maybe some swag.” It strode over to him, its sword gleaming black. “And we have some fun and eat.”

It reached down and caught Pippin by his arm, the same arm its leader had held him up by. Pippin yelped, bright spots swimming before his eyes. The orc held him up just as the leader had, its eyes locked on his hand. “I think we start with those, first,” it snarled, chopping its sword in the air over Pippin’s fingers. “Since they cause so much trouble. Missing one or missing none, I think they all taste good.” It lowered him to the ground and pushed him. Trembling, Pippin stuck his hands in his pockets and stumbled into a walk.

* * *

As another pair of soldiers bowed before the King and took their leave, Gandalf growled to himself and left Faramir and Imrahil and Gimli to join Aragorn. After a moment, Gimli trailed after him. “What news?”

“They have not found any sign of them,” Aragorn replied, frustration evident in his tone. “No one has found any sign of them.”

“It is most unnatural of hobbits to remain unseen and unheard for this length of time,” the wizard replied. “If they have not returned, we must assume they cannot.”

“More Men?” Gimli asked, his thick, muscled hands tightening on his axe as if they would like to tighten around the throats of anyone who would hurt his friends.

“Or something else,” Gandalf replied slowly. “Or simply mischance. If some piece of rubble had collapsed on them, the search parties would have heard their cries for help –”

“Assuming they could make them,” Aragorn murmured.

Gandalf nodded. “Yes. Assuming.” He took a deep breath, and suddenly it seemed to the others that he seemed tired and worn with care. “Very well. Your men had searched buildings and alleys, with nothing more to report than seeing Elladan and Elrohir and the occasional thief. Send some to search outside the city.”

Aragorn looked at him blankly. Faramir and Imrahil joined them cautiously, uncertain of their welcome. When the King greeted them with a nod, Faramir dared voice his thoughts.

“Sire, the Gates, greater and lesser, are closed. They were closed immediately after the Ring-bearer was taken. The halflings could not possibly be outside the city.”

Gimli was less bound by a lifetime of believing in the impenetrability of stone walls. “There are always ways out, laddie. Not all of Minas Tirith’s citizens are law-abiding folk.” Faramir grimaced, acknowledging this as truth.

“I am tired of standing and doing nothing but giving orders,” Aragorn said suddenly. “I cannot bear to wait to hear that Frodo…” He choked suddenly. Then his expression hardened. “The Ring-bearer was under my protection. Still he was taken, and hurt, and his kin have disappeared. I will wait no longer.”

“Aragorn,” Gandalf began slowly, “You are the King. It is not your place –”

“My place is where I say it is.” Gimli drew back from the anger in the King’s voice, and he saw Gandalf flinch. He had a moment to wonder at this, but Aragorn had seen it, too. He reached out and laid a hand on the wizard’s arm. “My friend,” Aragorn said more gently, “You have guided my steps all my adult life, and together with our Fellowship we helped bring an end to Darkness. But Frodo was the one who finished it. I owe it to him to use every tool at my disposal to find Merry and Pippin.”

Gandalf looked at him warily. “Tool…?”

“We are going back to the Palace,” Aragorn told them. “I will send a messenger to Arwen to prepare the palantír.”  

Faramir’s face blanched. “My king, Aragorn, do not –”

Aragorn touched his shoulder reassuringly. “Not your father’s Seeing-stone, Faramir. I do not have time to force my way past the image entrenched there and wrest the Stone to my will.”

Faramir looked down. When he raised his head, the newly risen sun glittered off tears in his eyes.  “Perhaps someday that Stone will show other than my mad father’s burning hands.”

“May it be so,” Aragorn murmured. “I will use Orthanc’s Stone. Arwen will know that.” He motioned and a soldier immediately ran to him and saluted him. While Aragorn gave the man his message, Gandalf gathered the others to him.

“I am wary of those Stones,” he told them quietly, “for they lay long under the influence of the Dark Lord. Sauron’s was no doubt destroyed when Barad-dûr fell, but the destruction of the Ring did not eliminate all evil. The Stone Denethor used is proof of that.” Faramir nodded, his face strained.

“Aragorn has used it before to espy his kingdom,” Gimli said uncertainly.

“And suffered for it,” Gandalf murmured. “Using such a thing of Power is never without cost. We must –”

“Prince Imrahil,” Aragorn said courteously, turning his attention to them. “You have the command. Instruct the soldiers to continue their clean-up efforts and return to the Palace when you are certain the fires will not re-erupt.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Imrahil replied with a bow, shooting a worried look at Gandalf as the King turned to speak with an aide.

* * *

When the King, one wizard, a dwarf, and a prince saw the turn ahead of them leading to the inn ahead where Elrond had taken Frodo, Gandalf surprised them all by deserting them. “I’ve known that lad since he was a tweenager,” he told the others, “and he is one of my dearest friends in the world. Elrond may be the authority on healing, but I am the authority on hobbits.  Perhaps I can help Elrond in some way.”

Aragorn stayed him as he sought to leave. “You are not angry about the palantír?”

Gandalf smiled then, and the love he bore the King was in his face. “Elessar Telcontar,” the wizard said, “the time is past when this old wizard dictated your steps. You are the King of Men, now. And the small hobbit who made that possible needs me, as you do not.” Aragorn returned Gandalf’s smile slowly and stepped back.

“I want word as soon as you see him. Send a messenger.”

“I will. I hope to tell him you have found his cousins and they are well.”

“I hope to tell him that, too,” Aragorn murmured as the wizard strode away.

* * *

Queen Arwen had the Stone prepared upon their arrival, as well as a few choice words for her husband about carelessness with hobbits and then expecting her to hold the reins of sovereignty there instead of helping search for them. These were delivered within Gimli and Faramir’s hearing, resulting in much staring at the floors and foot-shuffling.

Aragorn ended her tirade by seizing her hands and kissing them.  “Elladan and Elrohir are searching,” he reminded her, “as is every soldier in Gondor and not a few townspeople. We will find them. I hope to find them more quickly using the Seeing-stone.”

“Have you news of Frodo?” Arwen asked quietly as she followed her husband to the cloth-draped pedestal of the small room set aside for the Stone’s use.

“Gandalf will send word,” Aragorn assured her. “What I can do most for him now is find his cousins.”

“Should we leave?” Faramir asked uneasily as Aragorn pulled away the cloth. The palantÍr shone beneath it, purple and black and moonlight, oddly compelling and repulsive all at once. Gimli had already taken a step forward, fascinated by its crystalline beauty as would be any of his people.

“This Stone will not be used in secret,” Aragorn told him, “in closed rooms and by minds deceived by Shadow. No, do not leave.” Arwen joined them and they retreated to the perimeter of the room. Aragorn spent some moments merely standing, his eyes closed, then he carefully raised his hands and placed them on each side of the Stone, and stared into it.

“Merry…” he murmured after some moments. The others dared a glance at the ball and quickly looked down; the colours were swirling and twisting back on each other, and the effect was nauseating. It did not seem to bother Aragorn. He stared into the seething chaos and laughed shortly. “Our young Brandybuck is in the company of your brothers, my love. They are on the level below us. They have a man with them, slung across Elladan’s horse most uncomfortably… They are turning from the road… I think they must be going to Mikah’s inn. The soldiers would have told them that was where Frodo was being taken. Well, they will be there shortly. Doubtless all of them can explain themselves then.”

Aragorn took a deep breath and rested a moment, eyes half-shut. His eyes met his lady-wife’s over the ball and Arwen smiled, all forgiven in the good news. Aragorn returned the smile then bent to the ball again. “Pippin-lad, where are you?” The colours swirled and searched. “Pippin … Pippin … Peregrin Took, where have you got to?” He frowned as the Stone continued to swirl and shift and looked at the others. “This should be easy – the Stone knows him.”

“Pippin handled it at Isengard,” Gimli explained to Faramir shortly. “And again in Edoras. Shouldn’t be surprised if the lad would wish to avoid it, now.”

“He does not have the choice,” Aragorn replied, frowning into the Stone. “It will seek him out… There!” The others were silent and intent. Aragorn stared into the stone for long moments, and when he raised his head again, his face was white and strained. “It is worse than we feared.”

* TBC *

Chapter Seventeen – In a Room Shadowed with Fears Unnamed

Nestled against Elrohir’s chest and wrapped in a thick Elven cloak, Merry dozed, oblivious to their captive’s whining complaints. When Lammor’s protests began to rise in volume, Elladan placed a finger between the man’s shoulderblades and pressed down – hard. “You have much to answer for,” the elf said quietly, his melodious voice betraying a hint of steel underneath. “For now, I suggest you be quiet and let the hobbit sleep.”

Lammor gulped and nodded, making no further protest as the elves and their passengers drew near to the inn. Elrohir reached under his cloak and tickled a pointed ear. “Merry, wake up. We are here.”

“I’m awake. I’m awake,” Merry mumbled, swatting at his ear. He struggled from the warm folds of the cloak to see the courtyard still crowded with anxious faces, though none of the people approached them. “Why are all these people still here?” he asked as the horses stopped. “You think they’d have gone home by now. And why is everyone staying away from us?” He twisted ‘round in the saddle and stared up into Elrohir’s face, noting that almost everyone else in the courtyard was doing the same. But strangely enough, their expressions were uncertain and wary.

“These good folk are worried about the Ring-bearer, Merry,” Elrohir explained. “And I suspect they are keeping back because they are a little chary of Elves at the moment.”


“You have never heard Father at full volume,” Elladan advised. “Luckily, all of the surrounding buildings are stone and still seem to be standing … else we might have to prevail upon Master Gimli to rebuild them. I don’t blame these good folk for keeping their distance.”

“I would keep my distance, too, from such ruffians as you appear to be,” interrupted a dry voice.

Merry looked around frantically. “Gandalf! Gandalf!”

“Hullo, my lad,” the wizard replied, striding up to Elrohir’s stallion. The brilliance of his white robes seemed to rival the climbing sun. Merry squinted, then laughed joyously as Gandalf winked at him. Eyes twinkling, Gandalf reached up and Merry seized his hand and pressed it to his cheek.


The twinkle faded as Gandalf gently pulled his hand free and moved it to Merry’s forehead, pushing back his wild hair. Merry saw the wizard’s eyes linger sorrowfully on the brown scar on his temple, then Gandalf’s gaze narrowed. “Meriadoc Brandybuck, have you been in a fight?


“Merry says this man is one of Frodo’s kidnappers,” Elladan said. Lammor dared a sideways glance, then froze at the wizard’s expression. Elladan smiled grimly. ”We came upon them as Merry fought to subdue him.”

“I broke his nose,” Merry admitted with an alarming degree of bloodthirstiness. He grinned over his shoulder at Elladan, admiring the elf’s delicate omission that he and Elrohir had found him on the losing end of that fight. Then he slid a leg over the stallion’s neck and launched himself into Gandalf’s arms.

“Oof!! A little warning please, my lad.”

Merry hugged him, hearing the relief in the gruff voice. Then he pulled back, staring into his friend’s face. “Have you seen Pippin? And Frodo and Sam? Is Frodo–”

“He is here, as is Samwise,” Gandalf said, interrupting him. “I just left Aragorn – he has returned to use the palantír to locate our last missing hobbit.”

Merry’s heart tripped. “No one’s seen Pippin yet? Gandalf, it’s been all night. Where could he have got to?”

“Aragorn is finding that out, then he will no doubt collect our missing Took. Don’t worry, Merry. I am sure Peregrin will soon turn up, probably just in time for breakfast and wondering why we were all so worried about him.”

Merry nodded, forcing himself to put aside a worry he could do nothing about. Taking a deep breath, he asked Gandalf to set him down then belatedly remembered his manners. “Elrohir, thank you for letting me ride with you.” The elf nodded graciously. “This man,” Merry continued with a glare towards the very quiet Lammor, “helped kidnapped Frodo. And I think he might have seen Pippin.”

Elladan grasped Lammor’s arm and pushed him off the horse. The man swayed, dizzy from being upside down, then his legs gave out and he sat down on the cobbles. Elladan stroked his horse’s neck and murmured something to it and the stallion bared its teeth again, once more on guard and ready to bite. The man cringed as the horse snorted in warning. “He will go nowhere,” Elladan promised as he and Elrohir swung down from their mounts. “Let us go inside.”

“Is Frodo-” Merry began again.

“Inside,” Gandalf said brusquely. Word had gone before them; Mikah flung open the doors and ushered them through the common room. The poor innkeeper looked tired, Merry thought, and rather frightened. Legolas greeted them as they entered the hallway, his face lighting as he saw the hobbit.

“Merry!” Legolas held out his arms and Merry threw himself into them, staggering the slender elf.

“Hullo, Legolas! I’m glad to see you.”

“And I, you,” Legolas replied as he opened the door to the room Elrond had commandeered. “You caused us some concern, my friend.” He was saying something else but Merry no longer heard him. Behind them, Gandalf and the twins were silent, their eyes taking in the silent room and the small, still figure on the table at its centre.

Merry would have rushed forward, but Gandalf’s hand descended on his shoulder and tightened. He was not aware of the unhappy look Legolas gave Gandalf, or of the Wood-elf stepping back into the hallway and closing the door. Merry swallowed, grateful for the warmth of the hand and the grounding it gave him. “How bad is he?”

“Not as bad as he was,” came Lord Elrond’s cool voice. Merry started then bowed awkwardly, realising how tired he must be not to have noticed the Elf-lord and the other Big People. Merry’s mouth dropped open as his weary mind identified Peter and Marly.

“Well met,” Gandalf said to them warmly. “Well met indeed. It is good to see you again, my friends. We will talk when things are more settled.” Husband and wife grinned at them, the joy on Marly’s face transforming her again into the beauty she had been in her youth. She curtsied to Gandalf, directed that radiant smile at Merry and went back to cleaning Elrond’s implements.

Wake up! Merry scolded himself. Pay attention! As Lord Elrond moved around the table to join them, Merry saw Peter was holding a flexible tube of leather, running his hands up and down it as if he were milking a cow. The other end of the tube ran to the table, to a mass of bandages affixed over Frodo’s chest. Merry inched cautiously forward. When no one told him to stay back, he reached out to stroke his cousin’s face. Frodo’s skin felt dry and soft, stippled with tiny whorls of soot a quick wash had not cleaned away. From there his hand moved to tuck a dark curl behind Frodo’s ear, and it crisped to ash between his fingers.

“Is he burned?” Merry turned to the Elf-lord, and suddenly his terror and grief and dread poured out of him in a torrent of questions. “The soldiers said he had a fall? How badly is he hurt? Can he breathe? Is he going to be all right?” Elrond held up a hand to halt the flow of questions, but a stumbling, yawning figure postponed his reply.

“I thought I heard… Mr. Merry!”

“Sam!” Merry rushed to him and caught him up in a hug, near lifting his startled friend off the floor. “Sam, old son! Are you all right?”

Sam nodded, his face still creased from his unintentional nap. His hair stuck out every which way and Merry’s stomach lurched as he saw blood on his friend’s clothes. Sam knuckled sleep out of his eyes then turned to look up at Elrond, having to step back a pace to meet the Elf-lord’s gaze. “You let me sleep,” he said in a somewhat accusatory voice.

Elrond ignored the tone. “You needed to rest, Master Samwise. You are the better for it. Now you must eat something.”

Sam’s face paled. “Thank you, sir, but I don’t…”

Merry fished in a pocket and held out a leaf-wrapped bundle. “Eat up, Sam. It was hard to make myself save some, so you had best take it before I change my mind.”

Sam bit into the lembas with less enthusiasm that Merry thought his noble sacrifice warranted. But his heart lifted as Sam’s tired face broke into a grin. “Taste fine, that does. I’d forgot how good they are.”

“Why is Peter doing that?” Merry asked.

Elrond glanced at his assistant. “The cylinder must be kept free of blood clots which might otherwise lodge in the tubing and cause Frodo sudden shortness of breath. Possibly causing another pneumothorax.”

“What is a–” Merry began, but Sam’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“Don’t ask,” Sam advised. “Unless you want them lembas to come back up, real sudden-like.” Merry shut his mouth and nodded. Peter smiled at overhearing this, but he never looked up from gauging the blood draining into the wine bottle.

“Tell me,” Gandalf demanded.

“The worst was the broken ribs,” Elrond replied. “One had punctured a lung. There are bruises and scrapes and minor burns. The ribs have been set and the blood and fluid drained–“ Sam made a queer sound and Elrond looked down at him, reconsidering what he had been about to say. Merry slipped his arm around Sam’s shoulders and squeezed.

The hobbits listened for a few moments as the Big People exchanged news, then sidled up to the table. “Hullo, Cousin,” Merry whispered, capturing Frodo’s limp hand in his. The fine skin was crusted with scratches and the nails ragged. Worse, the thin skin over the healing stump had torn. That would hurt, when Frodo was awake enough to be aware of it. Rage flared anew in Merry’s heart at the Men who had done this. But none of it could be heard in his voice as he continued, “A fine chase you have led us! Can’t you even go on a little tour of Minas Tirith without falling into trouble and turning the whole city upside-down?” Merry laughed and pulled himself up on the table to lay his brow against the side of Frodo’s head, feeling the warmth of his skin and the scent of smoke in his hair. The laugh somehow melted into a sob and Merry found he was shaking.

“Sit for a bit, Mr. Merry,” Sam urged him. “You must be awful tired. Did you really hunt down and capture that Man?”

“All right, Sam. But first I want to hear how Frodo was found, and about the fire, and how you two ended up here. And–”

“After you sit,” Sam repeated, that same glint in his eye he had when he thought Frodo was doing something daft.

Merry allowed himself to be led to a bench and settled with a blanket and enough cushions tucked around him to smother him. He watched as Sam checked on Frodo, stuck his head into the hallway to speak with Mikah, greeted the twins and Gandalf, checked on Frodo again, then opened the door once more before returning to him with a foaming mug of beer in his hands.

“Drink up, Mr. Merry. You look like you need it.” He has to take of someone, Merry thought, and since he can’t take care of Frodo right now, he’ll take care everyone else. Bless you, Samwise Gamgee!

Merry drank thirstily, not without the thought of what his mother would say about beer for breakfast. Looking around the room, he rather thought she might understand, just this once. Gandalf was speaking with the twins in a swift torrent of Elvish, with occasional comments or questions from Elrond. Merry itched to know what they were saying. Must work on learning Elvish, he reminded himself. He must have dozed for a while, for the closing of the door startled him and beer slopped against his hand as he jerked awake.


Sam took the mug from him, peered into it critically, and set it aside. “The young lords are taking that Man you captured to the King. Aragorn will get the truth out of him.”

“I didn’t really capture–” Merry began, but swallowed back the words when Peter raised his head and said deferentially, “My lord Elrond, there’s no more drainage.”

Elrond glided to Frodo’s side, inclining his long form over his unconscious patient. “Ahhhh,” he murmured. “There will not be a need for a thoracotomy. The tube…” he retrieved it from Peter and rubbed his hands along its length, “remains clear, and Frodo shows no large escapes of air … no great injury to the blood vessels or to the throat or diaphragm…” Handing the tube back to Peter, he lifted an eyelid and peered under it. Frodo twitched and his brows drew together slightly.

Elrond leaned closer and touched the pulse-point under Frodo’s jaw. “Master Frodo?” he whispered. Frodo sighed, an easy draw and release of breath. The healer looked up at his anxiously-watching audience. “We will withdraw the chest tube now. I would prefer it be done before he regains full consciousness.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Gandalf asked.

“If you would take Frodo’s ankles, Mithrandir.” The wizard handed his staff to Sam and moved to the end of the table. “Master Peter, the shoulders, please.”

Peter nodded and shifted sideways to Frodo’s head, placing one hand on each of Frodo’s shoulders. He leaned his weight forward, as did Gandalf. Sam and Merry looked at each other in alarm and spoke together.

“What are you–?”


Elrond jumped backwards, the leather tube in his hands. Frodo’s eyes flew open and Merry had a brief glimpse of his cousin’s contorted face before Frodo jerked violently and yowled something in Elvish.

“I quite understand the need to scream expletives,” Elrond said calmly. “Feel free, Master Frodo.”

Merry found himself at the table without having the slightest idea how he got there, Sam a sturdy presence at his back. “Frodo! Frodo!”

Frodo turned his head, visibly clamping his teeth shut against another cry. Perspiration glimmered on his face and on the straining cords of his throat. “Mer … Merry-lad?” Tearing eyes blinked and struggled to focus.

“I’m here, Frodo. Sam’s here, too. We’re both here.”


“Right here by Mr. Merry, sir,” Sam assured him, understanding that Frodo needed to hear his voice.

“Pip?” Those gathered around the table looked at each other in consternation. Sam moaned silently and Merry choked back a sob, unable to reply. “Pippin?” Frodo asked again, his eyes closing despite his struggle to keep them open.

“Frodo…” Merry began, but Elrond shook his head, those piercing silver eyes boring into him.

“Not now,” the Elf-lord said crisply. Merry stared at him, half of him indignant and ready to protest that Frodo had to right to know Pippin was missing, and the other half recognizing that Elrond was right; Frodo must not hear anything which would distress him right now.

“His breathing?” Elrond asked.

“Steady,” Peter reported, who had been following each rise and fall of Frodo’s chest. “I think he’s … yes. Asleep.”

“Good,” Elrond murmured. “That is best for him now. Release him.” Gandalf and Peter stepped back. Elrond looked at the hobbits, noting Merry’s confused and mutinous expression and Sam’s misery. “Friend hobbits, if you would return to your places, please. We are not quite finished with our work.” Sam obeyed and Merry followed him after a moment, still torn.

Elrond accepted cloths from Marly and cleaned the area of the incision, preparing to suture it and bandage it. As Peter threaded the needle, Elrond pressed the pungent-smelling cloth to Frodo’s nose again for a few moments, watching his patient carefully. Merry had to turn away as he sewed; Sam was staring determinedly at his hands.

At last Elrond straightened and the hobbits dared to raise their eyes. “It is done. I regret I must wake him. He must breathe deeply and cough to expand the lung.”

“Is that why you made him cough before?” asked Sam.

Elrond nodded absently, his attention on his patient. “I had to know if and how well he could breathe. Now I must know if the surgery has been successful.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Merry said.

“With such an injury as Master Frodo received in his fall, it is extremely difficult to breathe and almost impossible to cough due to all of the air pressure being exerted on the single functioning lung. Every time Frodo inhaled, some of that air was being driven through the puncture in his lung and into his chest cavity, where it, along with the blood, would eventually compress the good lung until it also was no longer usable. Every time he breathed, he was in fact compressing his good lung. We have just released that pressure.”

“Oh,” Merry said faintly.

“See?” Sam hissed. “That’s why you don’t ask him the wherefores and the whyfores!”

A shadow fell over them in the brightly lit room. Sam held out the staff and Gandalf took it with a keen glance at Merry. “You are thinking, Meriadoc. I know that look.”

Merry frowned. “Gandalf, Pippin wouldn’t deliberately cause us such worry. There’s something…”


“Well … back in Rivendell, Aragorn took us all on a walking party to see the geyser. Do you remember?”

Gandalf nodded. “Yes. Those of us who remained behind enjoyed several days of lovely quiet.”

Merry magnanimously ignored that. “We had just finished a meal, and we were talking around the camp fire. Aragorn was saying … he asked Pippin what he would do to keep Frodo safe. I think it was perhaps the first time we all realised the danger Frodo was in. Remember, Sam?”

“I do,” Sam agreed.

“Pippin said … Pippin said he would do whatever he had to, to keep Frodo safe.” Merry’s surmise firmed into dreadful certainty as he spoke. “Gandalf, what if Pippin felt he had to do something desperate to protect Frodo – and that’s why no one can find him?”

“But what would he do?” Sam asked, alarmed.

Merry shook his head. “I don’t know. But he would have felt he had no other choice. It would have been the only thing he could think of, the only action he could take.”

Gandalf sighed and leaned on his staff. Merry was reminded that he, too, had had no rest for more than a night and nearly a day. “I fear you may be right, Merry. That tweenager would do something ridiculous if he thought he was protecting Frodo.”

Sam bridled but Merry only nodded. “He would. I just can’t figure out what.”

A soft knock on the door heralded Legolas. As he leaned into the room, past him Merry saw Mikah and the sedan-chair bearers and the other people waiting in the hallway hurrying towards the common room. He could hear faint shouts and the clatter of hooves on cobblestones. Legolas looked around the room and his gaze centred on Gandalf. “The King is coming,” Legolas said. “Something is wrong.”

* TBC *

Author’s Note: Once again, I would like to thank my source for the difficult medical details of this chapter, the generous and knowledgeable Elemmírë. Frodo’s reaction upon his abrupt awakening must also be credited to Elemmírë;she fed me such a wonderful line from her own experiences that I had to use it. Elemmírë, thank you. All mistakes are my own. In real life, of course, the Ring-bearer would have required more time to recover from the procedures performed upon him, but for the purposes of the story…

Chapter Eighteen – On the Cusp of Dreadful Knowings

Merry had just a moment to grind his teeth over the elvish proclivity for understatement before the roaring of the crowd outside became louder. Legolas peered back into the rapidly-emptying hallway, then looked at Gandalf again. “Gandalf, will you not come? I can hear Aragorn shouting from here.”

The wizard looked from Frodo’s sleeping form to the elf, obviously torn. “I cannot leave him without knowing he will be well, Legolas. Tell Aragorn–”

Merry put his hand on Gandalf’s arm. “Sam and I will stay with him, Gandalf. Aragorn needs you. You’d best go to him before he orders his troops to storm the inn and frightens poor Mikah to death.”

Elrond nodded, but Peter and Marly looked confused. “We hear Men shouting,” Merry explained to them, knowing their ears were not as acute as hobbit or Elvish ears, “and horses and the clash of arms. Aragorn’s soldiers. There must be two hundred, at least.” A muffled bellow cut through the noise, momentarily overpowering the other voices. “And one Dwarf,” Merry continued with a smile. “Gimli is upset about something.” He tilted his head to listen. “Men shouting orders and weapons being readied for battle. Something has happened…” he trailed off, his face going white.

“To Pippin,” Sam whispered. “Something’s happened to change a search into a war. Aragorn means to fight.”

“I go to tell him you are coming,” Legolas said to Gandalf, and departed them swiftly.

Elrond stepped back and washed his hands in a basin Peter held for him. “The hobbits will stay with me, Mithrandir. But before you attend the King’s summons, I need your help.” Wiping his hands, the Elf-lord looked down at his patient. “I would wish him long sleep but he must wake and cough now. That lung must be expanded. Frodo loves you as he does Bilbo, Mithrandir. Call him.”

Gandalf bent over the sleeping hobbit, the silky hairs of his beard tickling Frodo’s face. Frodo’s nose squinched up a little and one hand rose to bat absently at the annoyance. The wizard smiled, open affection on his face. “Frodo,” Gandalf said, “Frodo my friend, wake up. Elrond needs to speak with you.”

That probably was not the best thing to tell him, Merry decided, as his cousin’s brows drew down and Frodo shook his head minutely. “Won’t,” Frodo mumbled.

“Frodo Baggins,” Gandalf said firmly. “You wake up this minute. Now.”

“Won’t. Go ‘way.”

Silence settled around the table. Sam was staring at the floor but his shoulders were quivering. Merry decided it would be wise to emulate his friend’s example as Gandalf glared around the room, daring anyone to make a comment.

Elrond coughed delicately. “Yes, well, evidently Master Frodo does not feel he has to obey you as he would Bilbo. Perhaps persuasion will succeed where orders do not. Master Merry?”

Not looking at the wizard, Merry clambered up on the table. There was plenty of room for him to kneel by Frodo’s head on the man-sized trestle table; three hobbits could have napped on it. “Frodo,” Merry sang in Frodo’s ear. “Frodo, Frodo Frodo… Mum says to wake up, you lazy hobbit.” Frodo sighed, unaware of the evaluating eyes upon him. Merry looked at the others and leaned back down. “Frodo. Wake up now. Breakfast!”


“Eggs with cheese, sugar toast, strawberries. Scones and jam, Frodo! Creamed mushrooms!

Frodo’s eyes opened slowly, and nose to nose, two sets of blue eyes blinked at each other. “Not fair, Merry,” Frodo managed weakly.

Merry grinned impishly and kissed the tip of his cousin’s nose. Frodo’s eyes narrowed in discomfort and Peter thoughtfully moved some of the lamps away. Frodo relaxed, yawning. After what seemed an eternity to Merry, Frodo focused on him, on Sam, on Gandalf. And on Elrond, who had waited patiently until that moment.

“Take a deep breath, Master Frodo. Hold it.” Frodo complied with obvious reluctance. “Good,” Elrond intoned. “Now let it out. Good. Again. Again.” Merry slanted him a smile over his shoulder as he slid off the table. Peter, meanwhile, had been cutting long strips of linen. As Elrond studied Frodo’s breathing, he affixed one strip on Frodo’s chest, wrapping it over his ribs and lifting him slightly to extend it to the centre of his back. He placed three, four, then more additional strips after the first, parallel each to another.

“Thank you, Master Peter,” Elrond said as Peter finished the wrap. “The linen will decrease pain by restricting movement on the fractured side. Much better than applying it on a dark, dirty street in the cold, yes, Master Samwise?”

Sam nodded, his eyes on Frodo’s face. Frodo smiled at him tranquilly, still somewhat woolly from the liquid-saturated cloth Elrond had used to sedate him. He yawned again and blinked sleepily. “Where’s Pippin?”

“Cough, Master Frodo,” Elrond said quickly. Frodo’s gaze returned to him and Merry saw fear in his cousin’s eyes.

“I’d … really rather not,” Frodo whispered.

Merry was surprised to see Elrond’s stern expression soften, and doubly surprised to see the Elf-lord extend a hand to stroke Frodo’s cheek gently. “I know it hurts,” the healer said simply. “I am sorry for that. But you must.”

Frodo nodded, eyes closing against the pain he knew was coming. He took a deep breath and the choice was taken from him. He choked, then began to cough. It seemed to go on a long time as Frodo fought to master his body. Elrond watched dispassionately, peacefully, but as the ocean is peaceful, filled with shifting currents and whirlpools and storms just out of sight.

“Enough. Enough, Frodo.” Peter had a glass of water ready and Elrond lifted Frodo’s head and applied it to his lips. Frodo looked up at him, tears streaming from his eyes, pallid and perspiring. He gulped the water and held it in his mouth a moment, struggling to swallow. Then in an explosive cough, he sprayed it all over Elrond.

“Frodo,” Elrond said urgently. “Stop.”

“Ca … can’t,” Frodo gasped. His chest heaved violently and his face contorted, his arms wrapping around his bandaged ribs.

“Frodo!” Merry pulled himself up onto the table again and tucked himself beside his cousin, locking his arms over Frodo’s, feeling his cousin’s body buck and convulse.

“Elrond, do something!” Gandalf demanded.

“Frodo, listen to me,” Elrond commanded. “Purse your lips in a whistling position and blow out slowly and evenly.” Frodo looked at him as if he had gone mad, but tried to comply. Slowly, painfully, the coughs lessened and finally trailed off into scattered wheezes.

Merry rocked him, careful not to hold too tightly. Nuzzling Frodo’s sweat-damp hair, he looked over his cousin’s head at the Elf-lord. “Why did that work?”

Elrond was blotting the fine spray of water from his face and clothing. That accomplished, he plied Frodo from Merry’s grasp and examined him, long hands pressing carefully. “Trapped, stale air is what causes shortness of breath. Before you can breathe in fresh air, you must evacuate the old. Deep breath now, Master Frodo.” Glancing at Merry, Elrond continued, “Frodo and Samwise both breathed in dangerous gases and smoke on Amon Amarth, called Mount Doom by Men. These gases clogged and damaged the air sacs deep in their lungs. I was concerned that the additional smoke Frodo breathed in the burning house had exacerbated this damage. Now, at least, he is breathing easily.” Satisfied, Elrond released Frodo to allow him to sag gratefully back into Merry’s arms.

“So when you breathe out slowly through pursed lips, you keep the air pressure up … and the lungs stay open so you can clear out the stale air,” Merry said with a wondering laugh. “Better now, Cousin?”

Frodo grimaced and nodded, looking around the room again. “Pippin?”

Merry’s grin froze. Across the table he could see Sam’s beseeching face. In the space of a heartbeat, he made a decision. “He just stepped out, Frodo. Looking for something to eat, no doubt. He’ll be back in a moment.”

Sam’s mouth dropped open, but Frodo did not see. His eyes were closing. He dragged them open and turned his head towards Merry, struggling to stay awake. “…here?”

“What, Cousin?”

“He wants to know if we’ll all be here when he wakes up,” Sam whispered.

“Yes, Frodo,” Merry said. “I promise. Pippin will be here, and Sam and I too. We’ll all be here. I promise.”

“He’s gone back to sleep,” Sam said softly.

“We will take him to one of the vacant rooms,” Elrond murmured, pulling the blankets up over the still form. “I do not want him moved any distance for at least two days.” Merry nodded and rubbed his face tiredly. Very carefully he inched back and wiggled off the table, dropping to the floor.

“Your turn, Master Samwise,” Marly said briskly. “Let my Peter have a look at those feet. Hop up on the table, please.”

“Hop,” Sam muttered under his breath as he put his hands on the table and struggled to heft himself up on it, careful not to disturb Frodo. “’Hop,’ Big People say. Right.” Merry hid a smile – the table was high for a hobbit and Sam more rotund than he. He circled ‘round the table to give Sam a boost.

“– take care of them,” he heard behind him. Merry spun around to see Gandalf taking his leave of Elrond, his hand on the door. As he watched, Gandalf pulled it open and strode through it, his staff clicking on the stone floor. Merry hurried after him.

“Where are you going, Master Merry?” Marly asked, alarm in her voice.

Merry paused in the doorway but his glance back was not for the woman or the Elf-lord but for Sam. Their eyes met and Sam nodded. “I made a promise,” Merry said quietly but clearly. “I’m going to find Pippin.”

* * *
The courtyard was a morass of plunging horses and shouting people; the folk who had waited all through the night calling for news, the soldiers shouting in reply, the King’s heralds trying to order the soldiers and townsfolk both. Merry stood rooted, overwhelmed by a sea of black and silver uniforms and flashing steel. Luckily, Gimli had been watching the inn’s doors and as Merry emerged, he starting pushing his way towards the hobbit.

“Thank you,” Merry gasped as the dwarf steered him towards the King. Gandalf had already reached Aragorn and he and Legolas were crowded against Aragorn’s mount and Aragorn was leaning down to speak with them, his face dark. He straightened suddenly and pointed over Merry’s head, past Mikah’s inn, seemingly into the distance past the walls of the city itself. Gandalf drew back and shook his head and Legolas looked unhappy.

“I am glad you are all right,” Gimli said by way of greeting. “I did not chase you and that tweenager two hundred leagues to lose you when the war is over. As it is, I have spent most of yesterday and all of last night following you. Do hobbits never stand still?”

Merry grinned up at him, knowing the dwarf’s tetchiness for the affectionate teasing it was. “It wasn’t my fault,” he began, then winced as his imagination echoed Pippin’s oft-used phrase in his cousin’s clear, high voice.

“Dwarves would not stand about so waiting for orders,” Gimli grumbled as a group of men in deep discussion blocked their path. “You there! Move aside!” The soldiers hurriedly did so, with many apologies and bows to the Heroes of the War. Gimli ignored them and strode on, but Merry summoned up a smile from somewhere. The men did not smile back. Merry had only a moment to wonder at that as Gimli continued, “Men and Elves must talk and talk and talk. Dwarves would just take up their axes and march these foul orcs into the ground.”

For a moment Merry thought his friend was just continuing his tirade. Then Gimli’s words registered. “Orcs?” Merry asked. “Orcs? What do you mean?”

Gimli glanced down at him, something angry and sad and regretful in his dark eyes. “Laddie, you need to speak with the King. The news is bad.”

I knew it, Merry thought. I just did. Something’s happened to Pip.

Aragorn spotted them, possibly from the absence of his men around the waving axe of the dwarf. He waved and Gandalf and Legolas turned and saw them. Behind them Merry could see Elladan and Elrohir, still mounted on their stallions, and between them an ashen-faced Lammor. Aragorn must have met them on the road. Lammor cringed between the twins, his wrists bound.

As Merry and Gimli drew near, Aragorn gestured for his guards to let them through. Merry longed to rush to him and hug him and demand he lead his soldiers in search of Pippin, but did not. The part of him which would someday rule his own lands knew reunions must wait. At this moment Strider was the King, and he had a traitor to deal with.

Merry could feel the dark rage of the people of Minas Tirith like the weight of an approaching thunderstorm. The air of the sun-lit courtyard seemed oppressive and cold. He pressed against Gimli, taking comfort in the dwarf’s solid presence. The angry mutters began grow louder. Minas Tirith, all of Gondor, had adopted the Ring-bearer as theirs, and the injury done Frodo was an insult to their gratitude and to their honour.

“He hurt the Ring-bearer.” Women repeated it in grief and men in anger and shame. “He hurt him. Our Ring-bearer. He hurt him.” Their voices rose, laying their grievance before the King. Lammor crouched lower and stared around him, obviously terrified. The crowd stared back, respectful and orderly, but with fury and disgust on their faces.

Aragorn greeted Merry with a nod, then kneed his horse forward a pace to address the crowd. He raised his hand and the mutters died. The foremost of the crowd bowed and many sank to one knee. Then in one voice, the people shouted, “The King! Hail, King Elessar!”

“My people,” Aragorn began, his voice carrying easily to the farthest edges of the assembly. Merry glanced at Gandalf suspiciously but could not tell if the wizard was somehow amplifying Aragorn’s voice. “This man has committed High Treason against the person of the Ring-bearer, saviour of Middle-earth –”

The roar of the crowd interrupted him. “Death!” the people shouted. “He deserves to die!”

“Stand back!” Aragorn ordered them. “He shall be tried by law.”

“Sire!” a man cried. “Is there any question he is guilty?” The people fell silent, intent.

“No,” Aragorn replied slowly. “The hobbit Meriadoc Brandybuck has accused him, and I have seen the truth of his words in the palantÍr. He has done this evil thing.”

“Then the law demands his death. It would be so anyway. Sire, he has betrayed the people of this city. Give him to us.” It was impossible to tell which man spoke; the words had come from many voices.

Lammor cowered back against Elrohir, but there was no mercy in the Elves’ beautiful faces. “You chose your path,” Elladan said to him. “Do not decry where it has led you.”

“No! No!” Lammor begged. “It was them – Dharnor and Brin – that planned the kidnapping and sold him to the orcs, I only helped–”

“Your own words condemn you,” Aragorn told him coldly. He looked out at the many people there, who had searched all day and waited through the cold night from gratitude and love of the Ring-bearer. “Prince Faramir.”

Faramir rode forward, his face as cold as the King’s.

“Mount his head on a pike at the Gates,” Aragorn said.

“Noooo!” Lammor fell to his knees. “Your Majesty! I beg you!” Faramir gestured and a squad of six men came forward and saluted.

“You have heard the orders of the King,” Faramir told them. The soldiers saluted and surrounded the wailing man. They dragged him away, still pleading, and many of the crowd followed in grim determination.

Merry turned away, trembling, and a moment later felt a large hand descend on his shoulder. “It is justice,” Aragorn told him, holding the reins of his nervous horse. “Retribution must fit the crime, Merry. Such deeds cannot be allowed to go unpunished.” Merry nodded but still his heart cried against the Man’s death. Aragorn searched his face. “Merry, that man committed a despicable act against the Ring-bearer. Against Frodo. Surely you would not have me let him go free?”

Merry shook his head. “No. But I am sorry that he chose to do what he did. And I am sorry for the end that came of it.”

Aragorn knelt and embraced him. “Good,” the King whispered. “I would not see your heart grow hard, my friend. You have suffered much and it has made you strong and resilient, but not callused. I wish you always to remain a hobbit.”

Merry returned the embrace, feeling strength to flow into him from his friend and King. Then he drew back and it was his turn to look into Aragorn’s face. “Gimli said something about orcs. Orcs? Aragorn, where is Pippin?”

“I have seen him in the palantír,” Aragorn told him. He stood and Merry held up his arms to be lifted up to the horse. The soldiers had procured mounts for Gandalf and Legolas, and Merry saw Gimli struggle up behind Legolas most ungracefully. “Pippin has let himself be taken to save Frodo. It was a valiant, perhaps foolish, act. And yet, as Pippin’s schemes seem to do, it succeeded. They took him and left Frodo for us to find and rescue him.”

“They…?” Merry asked.

“Orcs,” Aragorn confirmed as he swung into the saddle behind Merry. “They’ve taken him out of the city, far onto the plains.” Aragorn set heels to his horse and it broke into a swift walk, men darting out of its way. Gandalf and Legolas and Gimli followed. Faramir called commands and the soldiers began to ride out in ordered ranks behind them, Elladan and Elrohir with them. Merry felt arms tighten around him and he looked up into Aragorn’s face.

“Merry,” Aragorn said softly. “There is no possible way for us to arrive in time to save Pippin.”

* TBC *

Chapter Nineteen – Down Dark Roads to Terrible Truths

Minas Tirith is built on seven levels, Merry recited to himself. Through this gate and around the curve, then down through the other gates and out of the main Gates onto the plains… Aragorn’s words sounded again in his mind and desperately, Merry raised the volume of his internal muttering to drown out what he had heard. There is no possible way for us to arrive in time to save Pippin. No. No.

“Merry,” came a voice above his head. “You are swearing under your breath. So far I have heard Elvish, Orcish, and what I can only assume is Entish. Frodo would not approve.”

Merry said another word and heard Aragorn gasp behind him. “I learned that one from Frodo. What does it mean?”

Frodo taught you that word?”

“Not deliberately, of course,” Merry replied. The next gate was before them, then they were through it. The soldiers riding behind them had to slow to navigate the narrow opening. They were further slowed by the people of the city lining the streets, gathered everywhere in tight knots of conversation. As Aragorn passed, they bowed in silence, eyes downcast. Merry  realised this was the road on which the guards would have taken Lammor. Hastily he wrenched his mind from what was even now probably taking place at the Gates. “Lord Elrond was … working on Frodo when Frodo said – well, screeched, actually –”

“He will be well, then?”

For a moment Merry was confused. “Didn’t Gandalf and Legolas tell you?”

“Yes,” Aragorn replied, and Merry could hear the heartache in his voice. “But I wished to hear it again, from you.”

Merry was silent for a moment, then deliberately pressed back against Aragorn. “Yes, Strider, he’ll be fine. He just needs quiet and rest.”

“And Pippin,” Aragorn finished.

Tears burned in Merry’s eyes. “And Pippin.”

Aragorn’s horse lurched and Merry pitched forward, snatching at the saddle horn. Behind him he felt Aragorn shift, easily keeping his seat. Merry knew himself to be a fine rider, but he had not been taught to ride by the Elves. He spared a moment to wish for his Stybba, all big brown eyes and soft muzzle nosing his pockets for treats. The pony could never keep up with these great horses, he knew, but at that moment he missed the little beast desperately.

Aragorn’s hand descended on his shoulder, steadying him. “All right?”

Oh, yes, I’m just fine while Pippin is probably being tortured and murdered, Merry thought. But what came out of his mouth was, “Fine. It was just a slip.”

“We are going as fast as we can, my friend,” Aragorn said.

“I know,” Merry whispered. He tried to smile. “No doubt by the time we arrive, those orcs will be begging us to take Pippin back. On their knees, probably. They’ll be tired of feeding him and taking care of him–” he choked suddenly.

“I know, Merry,” Aragorn murmured, his warm breath puffing into Merry’s hair. The hand tightened momentarily then removed itself.

That was the fourth gate. And now the markets are opening, and the roads are becoming crowded with vendors and carts. The horses can’t go very quickly on the cobbles– As if in answer to his fear, he heard a man shout and the bugle of a frightened horse. The cries were followed by the crash of mail and clatter of weapons as an animal went down. He leaned around Aragorn and looked behind him just as Faramir flung himself off his horse and reached the thrashing animal, pulling its rider out from under it.

Merry’s heart clenched in sympathy as the horse struggled to its feet, head hanging and blood running freely from its shoulder. Its rider frantically pulled off his cloak and held it against the wound, his other arm bent against his body at an odd angle. The soldier’s face was white beneath his helm. Faramir spoke with him briefly then turned to the King. “Sire! The men cannot go at speed on this uncertain ground!”

Aragorn groaned and Merry echoed him. These horses were not Shadowfax, not Mearas, able to run swift as the wind over sand, soil, or stone. The King held up his hand and horses whinnied as their riders reined them in. “Slowly,” Aragorn shouted. “Do not risk yourselves or your mounts!”

Elrohir and Elladan would have gone to the injured man, but Aragorn forestalled them. “There are others to help him to the Houses of Healing, my brothers. I need your bows with me.” The twins looked at each other and Merry saw that silent communication pass between them. Still mounted, both strung their bows then returned them to their backs with the strings across their breasts. Legolas did the same, forcing a grunt from Gimli as a bowtip caught him in the side.

“The orcs have far outpaced us,” Aragorn said grimly. “If they do not turn from the path the palantÍr showed them taking, they could reach a ridge of hills before we could come upon them. Those hills are riddled with caves. If they found a defensible one, they could hole up in it. We would not dare to storm it.”

“We could wait them out,” Gimli growled. “Lack of food and water might induce them to surrender.”

“They have food,” Legolas reminded them. “And water – or at least liquid. They prefer blood to water.” The elf looked at Merry, distressed to have said that. Shaking his head, Legolas continued, “They could hold Pippin’s life against us, and we would never know they had killed him until too late.”

Merry found his heels were drumming against the sides of the saddle-blanket, confusing the poor horse beneath him. He made himself stop and rubbed its neck in apology. Gimli was right, Merry thought, all Men and Elves did was talk and talk. He wanted to fling himself to the ground and run, run ahead of them all, never to stop until Pippin was found and safe. He wanted Frodo not to be hurt, and Sam, and he wanted–

“Gandalf!” Aragorn’s shout brought the wizard closer, crowding the horse Legolas and Gimli shared. “Once outside the city, can you sense Pippin? Can you find him?”

“If there are no more blasted piles of stone in the way,” the wizard replied shortly.

* * *

The voices piercing the warm murkiness enveloping him did not alarm him. Some of them were not familiar but they tugged at his memory. Sam’s voice was there and Sam was laughing, so Frodo knew that nothing could be so very wrong. He smiled, luxuriating in the warmth and immobility of the room.

“Mama? He’s waking up, Mama!”

Where had he heard that voice before? It was a young voice, and excited, and had delivered that pronouncement inches from in his ear. With a great effort Frodo opened his eyes. A pale blur hovering before him drew back and resolved into a dark-haired boy with brown eyes, his face covered in freckles and grinning ear-to-ear.

“Hello, Master Frodo! I bet you didn’t expect to see me here!”

“Brion! Give Master Frodo room to breathe!”

The boy wrinkled his nose at his father’s command but he backed up. Frodo saw that Brion was kneeling on the table, and another, larger boy stood behind him, grasping the edge of the table eagerly.

“Master Frodo! How are you, sir?” Richard asked. Brion slid off the table and joined his older brother, both of them practically bouncing in place.

“Hello, lads,” Frodo murmured, swallowing around a dry throat.

Marly bustled up and shifted her offspring to the side, a cup of water in her hand. “He’ll be thirsty, boys. Let the master have a drink before you ply ‘im with questions.”

“May I, Mama?” the older boy asked, reaching for the cup.

“Let me, Rich,” his mother replied comfortably. “Master Frodo looks a bit wobbly yet.” Still somewhat fogged, Frodo watched as the woman circled ‘round the end of the table and ever-so-carefully lifted his shoulders and settled him before her. He felt quite pleasantly cushioned on something soft and warm.

“Thank you,” Frodo murmured as she put the cup to his lips.

“Rich has been hoping to practice on you,” Marly told him as he drank, her voice bubbling with laughter and pride. “He’s determined to become a great hobbit-healer.”

Peter joined them, smiling, and Sam with him. “The boys have been asking to see you, sir,” Peter told him, “but there wasn’t time till now. You just tell me if they’re a bit much for you.”

“No, let them stay,” Frodo replied quickly, smiling at the children. “It is good to see them again.”

“Are you going to be all right, Frodo?” Brion asked, reaching over the table to clasp his hand. Frodo squeezed his fingers, smiling as the child’s face lit up.

“With such healers as these, how could I not be?” he replied lightly, feeling Marly quiver with amusement behind him.

Elrond strode into view and much of Frodo’s pleasant haze dissipated.  When the Elf-lord reached for him, Frodo found himself shrinking back. Summoning his fortitude, he raised his head and met the healer’s eyes. “Once … once again I seem to be in your debt, Lord Elrond.”

“There is no debt, Master Frodo. Now or ever." The Elf-lord examined the bandages over his ribs, put a hand on his forehead, looked into his eyes, and listened to his breathing. "You will have a new scar to add to your collection.”

Under that scrutiny, Frodo became aware that his chest was starting to hurt very much, and little, nagging hurts were needling him in too many places to count. He winced, and it did not escape Elrond's notice. “A moment, Master Frodo, and I will give you something to ease you.” Over Frodo’s head, Elrond said to Marly, “Keep him quiet.” With that he busied himself with his case, examining various vials and bottles.

Frodo smiled at the people gathered around him. “Hullo, Sam. I’m glad to see you’ve sorted things out with your usual efficiency.”

Sam smiled back and Frodo saw something that had been held tight relax in his face. “Have you eaten and rested, Sam?” he asked, looking at him as closely as he could with eyes that would not quite focus.

“Don’t you worry about me, sir,” Sam replied stoutly. “I’m fine. I had a bite and a nap and a good mug of beer. The ale here’s a treat.”

“It is indeed,” Frodo replied. “Poor Master Mikah … I don’t know how I shall ever repay him. I imagine he won’t invite hobbits to his inn again so readily.” He paused. “Do you think I might have a mug of that beer now?”

“No,” Elrond said flatly, returning with a small, corked bottle all-too-familiar to the Ring-bearer. “This will do you more good than ale. And I do not want any argument, Master Frodo.”

Frodo sighed and accepted the bottle. He sniffed it and grimaced dramatically. Still cushioned comfortably against Marly, he started to raise his arm.


“Best not move that arm till your ribs heal some,” Peter advised rather late.

“Ow,” Frodo agreed in a gasp.

“Do you want me to pinch your nose shut?” Brion offered. “Mama always does it for me when I have to take some horrible medicine.”

Frodo squeezed his eyes shut briefly, a less painful expression of mirth than laughing. “Thank you, Brion. But after all I’ve been through, I think I can manage.”

“Did you really walk all the way into the Black Lands, Frodo?” Brion asked, clearly unable to stifle himself a moment longer. “And defeat the Dark Lord and save the whole world from darkness? You and Sam?”

Sam saw some of the light go out of Frodo’s face, and he hastened to intervene. “Now let Mr. Frodo swallow his tonic, lad.”

Elrond watched Frodo until the last drop was gone. With a nod he recovered the bottle. “You are to be taken to a room here, Master Frodo. Where you will stay – in bed – for several days. I or one of my children will attend you at all times.”

“That’s not necessary, Lord Elrond,” Frodo protested, eyes widening in alarm.

“I believe it is,” the Elf-lord returned implacably. He looked at the supine hobbit, frowning. “The litter we used to bring you to this inn cannot manage the stairs. Can you stand for a moment, Master Frodo?”

“Of course,” Frodo replied.

Peter lifted Frodo from Marly’s embrace and set him carefully on his feet. The sudden change in position made him dizzy and Frodo swayed, clutching at Sam. The room seemed to darken and tilt.

“Catch him!”

“I’m … I’m all right…” Breathing shallowly and quickly, he forced the darkness to retreat. Leaning against Sam gratefully, Frodo discovered that his legs were trembling and little droplets of cold sweat were gathering in his hair. Then another arm supported him and Brion grinned at him, brown eyes dancing.

“I’m taller now than you are, Frodo!”

“Almost everybody is,” Frodo agreed woozily. “Wait until you see Merry and Pippin. Where are my cousins, Sam?”

“Ah…” Sam began, unwilling to lie as had Merry. “Um … that is…”

“I’ve got him, son.” Peter stepped forward and displaced Brion, having to bend down to do so. “Go tell Mikah we’re coming, would you? And I imagine Master Frodo would like a bowl of warm soup once he’s settled.”

“Yes, da,” the boy replied and darted out of the room.

“Sam? My cousins–”

Peter’s interruption had given Sam time to think. In perfect truthfulness he looked at his master and said, “They’re not here at the moment, Mr. Frodo.”

“Oh.” Frodo leaned against him and Sam looked over his bowed head at Peter anxiously. “Are they out having a bite? I could do with something strengthening myself. What kind of soup is there?”

“I couldn’t say, sir,” Sam replied, having the answers to neither question. Frodo was looking around, blinking absently. “Master Peter, he needs to lie down.”

“This will get him to his bed.” Sam looked behind them to see Elrond positioning a small, straight-backed wooden chair behind Frodo. “Sit him down, gently.”

“I can walk,” Frodo protested, swaying.

“Yes, sir,” Sam said, tightening his hold. “But we got stairs to go up, and my feet hurt.”

Frodo looked down at the fresh white bandages wrapped around Sam’s feet. “Oh,” he said in confusion. “My poor Sam. Of course you mustn’t climb stairs. Aragorn has a salve that smells vile and feels like river muck, but it soothes the burns…” Still rambling, he was eased into the chair and lifted between the Elf-lord and healer-in-training.

Sam reached up and caught Frodo's hand as they started for the door. Burns? Frodo was becoming befuddled, thinking the bandages on his feet were for the burns inflicted on Mt. Doom. “Yes, sir,” he said neutrally. “Just you hold tight to your Sam, and you can have a rest in a few minutes.”

* * *

What he wanted most, Pippin, decided, was simply to stop. His bruises and weariness dragged at what little strength he had left and his throat burned with thirst. Strangely enough, his excruciatingly empty stomach had stopped complaining; probably, Pippin thought dismally, because it had given up on him.

Though he no longer had the strength to make a dash for freedom, he had tried slowing their escape by falling down and refusing to rise. The orcs had kicked him, but he would not stand. Then the one he had bitten had hauled him up by the scruff of his neck and waved its knife under his nose, still dark with the blood of the other it had killed.

“See this?” Shunt taunted him. “We don’t need fire to cook our meat, and you don’t need arms to walk. One for him,” it waved the knife at the smaller orc, who was watching avidly. “And one for me.”

It dropped him and Pippin stumbled but kept his feet. He knew he had reached the orc’s limits; years of testing his sisters’ limits, his parents’, and most fun of all, Merry’s, had given him almost a mystical sense of when to stop. Frodo, on the other hand, he had had to push and push and push, because his elder cousin would keep on forgiving him and indulging him and spoiling him…                   

Slap. Pippin’s head rocked back on his neck and he staggered sideways, staring up at Shunt in bewilderment. “You listening?” the orc snarled. “I said ‘walk’!”

Pippin stumbled into a walk. His whole body hurt and his feet throbbed horribly. That reminded him of Sam’s feet, and he wondered if Sam had hurt himself badly. And if Frodo was all right. Surely, oh surely, someone would have seen the fire?

He managed perhaps a league more before he fell again and could not get up. A fine trembling ran through him, muscles overtaxed into exhaustion. He was not aware of falling, only of the jolt from striking the earth and jarring the teeth in his skull.

“Get up! Get up!”

He could not. There was nothing left in him, not even tears. How had he and Merry managed to run ahead of the whips of the orcs, all those leagues? It seemed an unimaginably long time ago. He’d been younger then, Pippin thought wryly, and his leg hadn’t ached so. He heard the orcs snarling at each other, than the cold hiss of a blade clearing its sheath. He hoped it would be quick, and that they were too tired to torture him.

He pressed his face into the earth and felt the heat of the sun on the back of his neck. The earth smelled of green things long dormant, grasses and wildflowers just now waking after deep sleep. His cheek trembled against the ground. A tiny pebble worked loose of its place and rattled by his nose. Pippin watched it blankly before he realised the trembling was outside of himself. He could feel it with his whole body, and the now the orcs were noticing. The ground was shaking.

* TBC *

Chapter Twenty Alone in a Circle of Many

The smaller orc cried out, staring over Pippin’s head with mouth agape and eyes white-rimmed in fear. Its knife fell from its claws and it cringed, whimpering. Pippin blinked at it in astonishment. What on earth was wrong with it? It was just a little ground-shake. Or not so little. The pebble that had first caught his attention was now bouncing.

Keeping an eye on the terrified orc, Pippin dragged himself to his knees. The other orc, Shunt, was standing with its back to Pippin, its squat body rigid. Pippin looked around in confusion. But for the line of hills in the distance, he and the two orcs were the largest things on the Pelennor Fields. No trees, no boulders, no …then what was causing that cloud of dust behind them?

“Get up! Get up!” Shunt roared again. Pippin realised the creature was shouting at the other orc, not at him. The smaller one just cringed lower, whining and trembling. The shaking of the ground was stronger and now a deep rumbling, as of faraway thunder, could be heard. “Will you stay and die?” Shunt screamed. “Run! Run!”

Exhaustion forgotten, Pippin shot to his feet and obeyed – towards the growing wall of dust. A chance with whatever was coming was better than none at all as a captive. He put his head down, ignored the stabbing pain in his leg, and ran with the last shreds of strength in his body.

“No you don’t!” Shunt screamed as Pippin darted past him, “You’re mine! Come back here!”

It leapt after him. Pippin yelped and redoubled his efforts, but he had no chance of outdistancing the larger, stronger orc. Claws dug into his shoulders, piercing Frodo’s much-abused jacket into flesh. He went down, the orc on top of him. Pippin’s breath went out of him in a whoosh as they slammed into the earth.

Something flew over them too swiftly to be identified. Half-crushed under Shunt, Pippin struggled to raise his head as the other orc lurched into a run. It screamed, a long howling cry like a whipped dog. Then a long, thin branch sprouted between its shoulder blades. Stumbling, it fell. A lance, Pippin thought. The pinned orc scrabbled at the ground, its claws tearing great gouges in the earth. Then it shuddered and died.

“Filthy Whiteskins,” Shunt moaned, lifting himself up on his forearms. The movement allowed Pippin to snatch a breath and he did, choking on the orc’s stench. To his right was a drawn knife, to the left the orc’s almost equally deadly claws. He stayed still as a rabbit in the grass, hoping to be overlooked by the wolf.

A fierce song rose into the air, many voices raised in triumph and blood-lust. The Riders of Rohan were a dark mass of movement before the dust behind them. The ground shook with their coming and the sun flashed on their helms and on their weapons. Pippin closed his eyes; they had come for him at last, at last. Now he must show them he was worth it. Come on, Pip-lad, he thought. Last time pays for all. As Shunt stared in shock, he took a deep, quiet breath, readied himself, and flipped over onto his back. The orc tore its gaze away from the approaching horsemen and looked down at him.

Pippin kicked, his hard hobbit heel catching the orc right on the chin. Its head snapped back on its neck and it fell to the side. Pippin did not wait to see what damage he had caused. The second its weight was off him, he rolled away and stumbled up into a run. “Here I am!” Pippin sobbed, waving his arms. “Here I–”

Claws fastened into his arm. Pippin was pulled off his feet, his momentum swinging him into the air. Another clawed hand clamped down on his shoulder, pulling him back against a coarse, stinking tunic. “Stay back!” Shunt screamed at the men. “Stay back! I will kill him!”

The foremost of the Riders raised his arm and Pippin recognized Éomer King. His riding leathers shone copper over the silver of his breastplate and his mail gleamed bronze. A rider was handing him another spear and Pippin knew it had been Éomer who had killed the other orc, casting his lance to stand it quivering in the orc’s body over enormous distance.

Behind him rode the Lady Éowyn, her beauty only heightened by the fierce anger on her face. The Riders galloped around them in loose formation; some of the men Pippin recognized from Merry’s introductions. As they neared, the orc drew Pippin closer to its body, its arm under his jaw. The hold across his throat was like an iron bar, half-lifting him from the earth so that he had to rise up on his toes or strangle. He dangled from Shunt’s grip like a stuffed toy, with about as much ability to defend himself.

“Let him go!” Éomer shouted.

“And die on your spear?” the orc shouted, derision vying with fear in its harsh voice. “I am not stupid, Whiteskin king. Call off your warriors.” He shook Pippin, wrenching a squeak out of him. “Back up or he dies! Now!”

Éomer raised a gauntleted fist and reined his horse back a step. His Riders obeyed, backing their beasts. Pippin’s heart sank. Above his head, the orc was panting, sending its foul breath down on him. Orc, hostage, and Riders of Rohan stared at each other, stalemated.  

Pippin realised the dust blowing into his eyes no longer troubled him. The wind was changing – instead of blowing towards them, it now seemed to be blowing away. Strangely, the dust was not settling; instead there seemed to be more of it. Pippin could not see over the Éored but there seemed to be a commotion at the back of the Riders. Then Pippin heard, “The King! The King! Gondor!” Like the point of a spear, Aragorn rode through the Riders at the head of a great host of soldiers, Gandalf behind him and then Legolas and Gimli. But Pippin’s eyes were all for Merry, who sat before Aragorn, his eyes locked on his cousin’s and his face white enough to faint.

Pippin tried to draw breath for a cry, but the orc felt his throat quiver. “No you don’t,” it murmured, its low voice almost affectionate. “You made everything go wrong. Not you or I will leave this place alive.”

“Hold!” The King’s command stilled the cries of rage from the infuriated soldiers. Reining his horse aside Éomer, they held a brief conference. Pippin strained his ears but he could make out nothing above the murmurs of the men, and the shift and creak of their tack. Then the conference ended and the King and his companions turned their horses towards them. Silence fell over the watching throng. Pippin felt the orc tense and the arm across his throat tightened painfully.

“Let him go and I give you my word my men will not harm you,” Aragorn called. Turning to his soldiers he said, “Put up your swords.”

Many of the soldiers and Riders cried out in protest. Pippin looked amongst them and saw many he knew, many he counted as friends. Beregond was there, and Terenson and Hartalan, friend and drinking-friends, and he saw anger and fear and desperation on their faces. In that moment some of the King’s men were close to treason, to a disobedience that would have ended their honour and their careers and their lives, then Faramir stood tall in his saddle so all could see him. Slowly, deliberately, he lowered his sword and sheathed it. After a few moments, the men followed his lead. Aragorn gave no sign that, for a heartbeat, his authority over his men had faltered, pushed to the limit from love of one young halfling.

Éomer gave the same commands and the Riders sheathed their swords and lowered their lances. Éowyn was staring fiercely at the orc, and Pippin could almost feel her rage, her desire to snatch up a lance and run the creature through. But she could not save him; it was too far a cast for a woman.

Aragorn sheathed his own weapon, then held out his hands to show them empty. The orc stared at the King, not daring to believe this clemency. It shifted from foot to foot, dragging Pippin with it. “It’s a trick,” it growled. Pippin bristled, wanting to tell the creature that Aragorn would never lie, not even to a despicable orc. “A trick! His men…” Then Shunt chuckled and Pippin felt the arm across his throat loosen slightly. Drawing a great breath, Shunt shouted, “The Elves! Order them to throw down their bows!”

“Legolas,” Aragorn said, “Elladan. Elrohir. Do it.”

“Aragorn,” Legolas whispered, “I could–”

“No. I will not endanger Pippin further. Drop your bow.”

“Brother,” Elrohir whispered, and only the utter stillness let the wind bear his quiet voice to Pippin’s ears. Pippin hoped fervently that orcs had hearing as humans did, limited and weak. “It is yrch.” Elrohir’s voice held the fury of millennia spent hunting such creatures, most hated and despised by Elf-kind. “It deserves only death. A true shot–”

“And can you guarantee a true shot? It holds Pippin before it as a shield. Can you guarantee your arrow would fly over his head?”

“Then a throwing axe,” Gimli growled. “If the wind does not shift–”

“And if it does? If it does, Gimli? No. I will not risk Pippin’s life.” The dwarf groaned and fell silent.

Elrohir made a soft, agonized sound. “Brother,” Elladan murmured. When Elrohir did not move, Elladan cast his own bow to the ground. Elrohir’s hand strained white on his weapon, then he cast it down. Legolas’ bow was last.

“Good,” Shunt breathed. Pippin dared a glance up into its face, seeing fierce rejoicing there at having the hated Elves disarmed and helpless. Shunt lowered Pippin to the ground but transferred that agonizing grip to his hair. “One man steps forward,” it called to the silent, angry watchers, “and he dies. I will rip his head off. You understand?”

“Delay it,” Gandalf murmured, his eyes flashing. “Surely some twist of fate will favour us. The Valar could not permit this, not after all we have endured.”

“Merry?” Aragorn asked.

Merry jumped, startled at being addressed. Their discussion seemed to be floating over his head, not his concern or Pippin’s. He realised he was in shock, retreating from an end to this confrontation he could not contemplate. Not looking away from Pippin’s face, he whispered. “No, don’t do anything to hinder it. Pip will escape if he just has a chance. If you attempt to trick it, it will kill him.”

“What say you, King of Men?” The orc shouted. If it could hear them as Pippin could, it gave no sign. Pippin sensed that Shunt was tired, nearly as tired as he was. “Do I kill it now, before your eyes?”

“Aragorn,” Merry groaned, “Aragorn, don’t let it–”
“Release him as you gain the shelter of the hills and none of my men will follow. You have my word,” Aragorn called back. The orc snarled, untrusting, the idea of giving one’s word and keeping it alien to its kind. Pippin waited in silent supplication, tears sliding from his eyes from fear and exhaustion. Merry’s face echoed his misery.

“Draw back! Soldiers of Gondor! Draw back!” Aragorn shouted. Faramir took up his words and passed them through the ranks. Éomer nodded and signaled to his Riders with a wave of his lance. Horses and men milled about, shifting their formations as they backed up.

This isn’t happening, Pippin cried silently. They can’t be leaving me. Merry! Merry!

The orc grinned, transferring its hold to his arm. “Come on, little rat. We go to the hills, then I let you go.”

“You will let me go?” Pippin quavered.

“I swear it,” the orc said solemnly, then laughed. Leaning down close to Pippin’s ear, it whispered, “But I never said alive.”

“No!” Pippin threw himself flat, feeling hair rip from his scalp. Shunt growled and reached for him. The Men were too far away, Pippin knew, their swords sheathed, their lances lowered. Then a sound like a stinging wasp flew over his head, and Shunt screamed.

Pippin stared as the orc staggered back, an arrow projecting from its chest. Zzzzziiiiiiiip. Another went directly through its forehead. Shunt clawed jerkily at the air then fell backwards, its body slamming to the earth.

Pippin quivered, too shocked to move. The hoofbeats did not register to his stunned and horrified mind, nor the swift movement of a rider dismounting. A bow was flung to the ground beside him, then someone was holding him, someone soft who smelled sweet, and the loveliest voice he had ever heard was asking, “Pippin? Are you hurt, dear one?”

Warm arms enveloped him, and Pippin burrowed into them instinctively and began to weep. “Shush, shush,” Arwen murmured, rocking him. “It is all over now. It’s all over, Pippin. It’s all over.”

More hoofbeats, and shouts. Men throwing themselves from the saddle, and Merry with them. The soft arms released him to the care of his cousin, and Merry wrapped himself around Pippin and joined him in weeping, hugging each other in disbelief that both their lives had been given back to them.

Soldiers and Riders stared in blank astonishment at the dead orc, then looked at the King. Aragorn walked slowly to his wife, seeming to seek words. Arwen stood, then bent gracefully to retrieve her bow. “I am no man,” she said clearly, “nor of your command. Your word does not apply to me.”

“Arwen, the city–”

“Prince Imrahil commands in my place, husband. He has experience, if you recall.” Arwen smiled, knowing he could not refute her. Aragorn held her eyes for long moments, then nodded acknowledgement of her words. Beside him, Éomer was grinning openly, his white teeth flashing in his beard.

Aragorn sighed, a smile creeping over his mouth. Turning to Éomer, he clasped the other man by the shoulder and said to him, “You have my thanks, my friend. Had you not held them, the orcs would have reached the hills and taken refuge in the caves. Pippin would have been killed shortly after.”

Éomer’s dark eyes crinkled in amusement. “The Éored chose to stay outside the walls when word reached us of the Ring-bearer’s abduction and Pippin’s disappearance, else we would have returned with Elladan and Elrohir. We thought it small chance that the abductors would leave the city, but a chance we could not overlook. So we came upon the orcs and held them, and you held the orc long enough for the Queen to accomplish what all the soldiers of Gondor and the Rohirrim could not. I think you will not have an uneventful married life, my lord.”

Aragorn nodded, seeming somewhat chagrined at the thought. “As you will one day find out, Éomer King.” He smiled again at the look of mock-horror on Éomer’s face, and both men laughed. 

Aragorn’s gaze returned to the hobbits, who were too wrapped up in each other to notice. “I want to get Pippin to Elrond,” he continued, watching as Merry shoved a water bottle and a crumbling, leaf-wrapped bundle into Pippin’s hands. Pippin began devouring both with a quickness that spoke of long denial. Aragorn’s amusement faded. He approached them, keeping before Pippin so as not to startle him. Merry still had his arms around his cousin and was speaking to him, not letting him talk much in return until every last drop and crumb had disappeared. Merry did not release Pippin as Aragorn knelt and cupped the tweenager’s face gently.

“Pippin? Are you hurt? Tell me if you are hurt.”

Pippin shook his head, still safely wrapped in Merry’s arms. “Just sore and bruised and tired. So tired.”

“They hit him. And kicked him.” The quiet rage in Merry’s voice was frightening. Pippin darted a look into his face then tucked his head under Merry’s chin.

Aragorn nodded, outlining a bruise with his fingertips. “Come, my friends. If we ride quickly, we will be in Minas Tirith in time for hot baths and luncheon. And you have a certain cousin who is very anxious to see you.”

New fear sparked in Pippin’s eyes. “Is Frodo all right? Is he all right?”

“He will be, now,” a deep, gravelly voice interjected. Aragorn smiled and stepped aside as long arms caught up Pippin and hugged him. Pippin laughed joyfully and returned the embrace. “And you shall ride with me,” Gandalf told him. “It seems you require constant supervision to keep you out of trouble.”

People were mounting around them, horses tossing their heads and stamping with impatience. Gandalf lowered Pippin to the ground and guided him towards his waiting horse with a hand on his back. Merry followed after, still reluctant to let Pippin out of arm’s reach. But Pippin halted and looked around, licking a last crumb of lembas off his lip.

 “I want to ride with Lady Arwen!”

“Pip!” Merry whispered repressively, “She’s married now!”

“Merry,” Pippin whispered back, “You are my dearest cousin and I love you with all my heart. But if you don’t let me ride with Arwen, I will make you sorry for the rest of your life.”

“Peregrin Took!” Merry drew back, aghast. Gandalf was no help; he was chortling merrily.

Pippin ignored them both and went to the Queen’s horse, holding out his dirty arms and looking up at her hopefully. Arwen laughed and leaned over, sweeping him up to seat him before her. Pippin snuggled back against her with a little sigh of contentment.

Well, two could play at that game and Merry knew a good thing when he saw it. He looked around and hurried between the horses to his chosen objective. “Lady Éowyn,” he asked plaintively, “might I ride with you? The King is in discussion with your brother and I fear he has forgotten me.”

“Men!” Éowyn said with some asperity. “Of course, Merry.” She started to dismount but Legolas was there, offering Merry a lift up.  “Well done!” the elf whispered as he settled the hobbit into Éowyn’s arms. Merry did not deign to reply, but his pleased little smile spoke volumes.  

“Hobbits,” Gandalf muttered, but those near could hear the smile in his voice as he swung into his saddle alone. “There are things they can teach us, Gimli my friend.” The dwarf nodded agreement, his eyes gleaming with amusement, and followed Legolas to their horse.

Merry and Pippin waved at each other from their respective places and nestled into soft, welcoming arms. Éowyn shook her reins and guided her horse alongside Arwen’s to allow easy conversation between all parties. Queen and Princess smiled at each other then each addressed her passenger. “You must tell us immediately if you want anything,” Arwen said to Pippin.

“I will,” Pippin promised.

 “Are you comfortable, Merry?” Éowyn asked. 

“Yes, thank you,” Merry replied politely. “This is very nice.”

Éowyn and Arwen pulled their cloaks forward and wrapped them around the hobbits, tucking them in against any chills. With Faramir and Éomer’s second calling commands, the entire cavalcade began its return to the city, leaving the corpses to the carrion crows. They did not ride alone for long; many Riders and soldiers drew even with them to assure themselves the hobbits were indeed well. Merry and Pippin greeted each graciously and thanked them for Pippin’s rescue, and the men dropped back, charmed and relieved.

Aragorn, Faramir and Éomer rode in silence behind them for some time before Faramir ventured to draw the King’s attention. “Sire?”

“Yes, Faramir?”

“I note, my King, that those two halflings are riding in cushioned proximity with our beloveds, while we trail along behind,” Faramir gestured at the hobbits, who were being fed tidbits Arwen had procured from her saddlebag.  “How did they manage that?”

Before them, Merry coughed. Éowyn bent over him then turned in the saddle, a frown on her lovely face. “Drop back, my lords,” she called to them. “The wind is blowing your dust onto the hobbits.”

Aragorn cast Faramir a sideways glance as they slowed their horses. “If there is one I have learned, it is that hobbits are astonishingly adept at getting their own way. Pippin has long adored Arwen, and I suppose I cannot fault him for seizing the opportunity to ride with her.”

Arwen glanced over her shoulder at them, her beauty not in least diminished by the severe expression she wore. “Lower your voices, my lords. I will not have you disturbing the hobbits.”

Aragorn and Faramir sighed and fell silent. Éomer snickered into his hand, and (safely out of his sister’s hearing) engaged Gimli and Legolas in a discussion of the demanding nature of females and hobbits, all the long leagues back to the city.

* TBC *

Chapter Twenty-One – In a Place Silhouetted by Sunshine

“Pippin dear,” Arwen said gently. “You are weary. Sleep. I will awaken you when we come to the inn.”

Pippin was dozing in the saddle before Arwen, swaying from side to side in her arms. At her voice he jumped and looked up into her face. For a moment he was utterly still, entranced, then he found his voice.

“Thank you, my lady, but I don’t want to miss a moment of this ride. I’ll stay awake, thank you.”

Wondering how she could possibly take offense at his lack of obedience, Arwen laughed and hugged the warm bundle of hobbit seated before her. She began a soft, slow song pitched for his ears alone. Pippin sighed and nestled back against her, as happy as he had ever been in his life.

Merry put his hand on the reins and tugged surreptitiously. Éowyn glanced down at him and slowed her horse, dropping behind the Queen. Aragorn, Faramir and Éomer made room for her and a wave from Merry brought Gandalf closer, Legolas and Gimli following.

“What is it, Merry?” Aragorn asked.

Merry checked that Pippin would not overhear them. The hoof falls of the following soldiers and Riders quite conveniently masked his words from those riding ahead. “We’re coming up on the Gates, Aragorn. I don’t want Pippin to see … what’s on a pike there.”

“No doubt the King’s justice has been carried out by now,” Faramir agreed, standing in his stirrups to see ahead. The Gates of Minas Tirith loomed before them, blazing white under the sun. Tiny figures scurried about on the guard walk. They were still too distant to make out anything as small as a head impaled on a pike.

“He won’t go to sleep if he can help it,” Gandalf agreed, frowning.

“You wish to … help him along,” Legolas said.

Merry grinned at him. “It’s for his own good. But how?”

The obvious answer occurred to them all. Merry grimaced at the aghast stares. “No, I didn’t mean that. Pip’s been hurt enough. I was thinking of something more…”

“Insidious,” Legolas breathed.

“You’re learning, Legolas,” Merry told him, eyes sparkling. “Gimli, did you happen to bring that flask of yours with you?”

“Never without it,” the dwarf rumbled, handing the heavy flask over to Merry.

Merry caught it with both hands and listed sideways in the saddle but Éowyn caught him and pulled him upright. “Dwarf-ale?” she said with very evident disapproval.

Merry pulled out the stopper and allowed himself one sniff, trying to keep his eyes from crossing. “Regular ale won’t work – Pippin could swill it all day and never even hiccup. Dwarf-ale, on the other hand…”

“Are all hobbits so ruthless?” Faramir whispered to Gandalf.

“We prefer to think of it as ‘practical’,” Merry interjected, hefting the flask with difficulty. “Pippin is a stubborn little thing. All those Tooks are.” Intent on the flask, he missed the looks exchanged above his head.

“Right!” Merry looked up into Éowyn’s amused face. “If you would, my lady…”

The men bowed in the saddle. Éowyn set heels to her horse and set it trotting after the Queen and her passenger. “Hoy, Pippin!” Merry caroled, “look what I have for you!”

* * *
More voices in the dark, one less familiar than those which had interrupted his sleep earlier. Aragorn he knew, and Merry of course, though Merry’s voice sounded oddly slurred. But the other…

“Are they always like this when sodden? It is like trying to pick up a sleeping cat.” There was a creak of bedsprings and his mattress shifted under an additional burden. Frodo struggled with the voice then placed it at last: Prince Faramir.

“The nightshirt is stuck on his head – there.” A rustle of blankets of being pulled up. “Fortunately, the hobbits did not have much opportunity to get soused during our Quest. Else we would have had to have carted them across the face of Middle-earth.” That voice belonged to Aragorn. Frodo felt faintly insulted.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” came a reproachful voice, “but you’ve got no reason to say that. It was Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin who had to be dragged out of every taproom we passed.”

“Not every one, Sam. I am quite certain we missed one in Bree and there are at least two left in Minas Tirith we haven’t been to yet.” 

“Thank you for the correction, Merry. You had better sit down before you fall down.”

“I’m fine, Aragorn. Fiiiinne,” Merry drawled. “Pippin’s a good lad. I don’t know that I would have shared my dwarf-ale with him.”

“Do you need me for anything else, sire?” Faramir asked.

“No, Faramir. Thank you. Will you tell Lord Elrond that we are ready for him?”

“I will, my lord.” A moment later Frodo heard the door open and shut.

Prying his eyes open, Frodo saw that someone had pulled the shutters and the room was dim and musty. Dust motes danced in sunbeams streaming through the slats. A fire had been lit and the cheerful snap crackle sounded warm and friendly. He felt almost too hot. Shifting a little, he found that someone had placed his arm in a sling, no doubt to reduce the possibility of movement of his injured ribs.

An arm’s reach across from him lay Pippin, asleep with a smile on his face, clad in a nightshirt far too large for him. As he himself was, Frodo discovered. Someone had given him a bath. He devoutly hoped it was Sam, though Marly seemed the more reasonable choice. She had done it before, after all. Frodo felt his cheeks burning. Then he forgot his embarrassment as he caught sight of the garment Aragorn was holding up to examine.

“That’s my jacket,” Frodo said, inching up on his pillow with a grimace. “My new jacket. What happened to it? It was almost new.”

“You said that, Frodo,” Aragorn replied, rolling the filthy, torn, shredded jacket into a ball.

“It was new. I had barely worn it–”

“What’s wrong with him?” Merry whispered.

“He’s a little … confused,” Sam whispered back. “Lord Elrond gave him a draught to ease his pain and make him sleep.”

“I don’t know if it is a good idea to put Pippin next to him,” Merry said, settling himself into an easy chair by the fire. “It may be a huge bed but Pip’s a restless sleeper.”

“I suspect Pippin won’t move for hours,” Aragorn said thoughtfully. He leaned over and prodded the tweenager’s shoulder with a finger.

“No tickling,” Pippin mumbled. Groping for the pillow, he dragged it down where he could curl around it.

“What have you done to Pippin?” Frodo demanded. “He’s–”

“Relaxed,” Aragorn said firmly. “We will tell you about it when your mind is clearer, Frodo. You need to go back to sleep.”

“I do not.”

“Yes, you do.”

 “No, I don’t. Meriadoc, you answer me right now!”

There was no reply. Merry was asleep, sprawled into the chair with his head thrown back, mouth open. Sam shook his head and lifted Merry’s feet onto a footstool. 

The door opened and Elrond glided in, an all-too-familiar tonic bottle resting on a tray between his hands. “Good afternoon, Master Frodo. I am delighted to see you awake.” He looked at the other two hobbits and Sam, who bowed. “And your cousins deep in healing slumber. Excellent.”

“I have to go to sleep now, too,” Frodo said hurriedly.

“No, you don’t,” Elrond returned, shaking the bottle.

Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do,” Frodo yawned theatrically and made one last desperate effort. “Aragorn said I must.”

“After you take this tonic,” Elrond replied. He watched approvingly as Frodo complied. Ignoring his patient’s strangled gurgles, he asked of Aragorn: “Has Peregrin shown any signs of waking?”


Elrond nodded. “The scrapes and bruises will heal. He is more tired than any other thing. I will just check once more…” Frodo and Sam watched as Elrond examined Pippin next. Or tried to examine him. Every attempt was met with a flailing arm and the murmur, “Crumpets. With jam, please…”

Elrond sighed and gave up. “While I do not approve of your method of calming him, I cannot argue with its effectiveness. I suspect he will awake no more than sore and hungry, possibly even without a headache. Ah, the advantages of youth.”

“Will someone please tell me what has happened?” Frodo asked in a bewildered voice. The question was accompanied by an unwise decision to sit up, forcing a gasp from him.

Elrond straightened immediately. “Are you in pain, Master Frodo?”

“I … ahhhh…” Strong hands fastened on his shoulders and eased him back down. Frodo blinked; Elrond had moved from Pippin’s side of the bed to his and he seemed to have missed it. Blink, over there. Blink, over here. Elves really were amazing creatures.

“Master Frodo? Frodo?” He could not respond; a spear had been thrust into his chest. No mithril vest, he thought muzzily. The Cave Troll’s succeeded this time. White flashes of light were sparking through his vision.

“I don’t think he is hearing you,” Aragorn said. “And his eyes are not focusing.”

“Mr. Frodo? You all right?” Sam’s voice penetrated Frodo’s haze where Aragorn’s had not.

“Sam? The Cave Troll…”

“Breathe, Frodo. Slowly.” Frodo bridled; how could Strider expect him to breathe with a spear in his chest?

“Let me look at him in the light. Open the shutters.” A pair of arms was lifting him from the warm covers. Frodo protested but another blanket was being wrapped around him, and he was cradled against a tunic that smelled of herbs and pipe-weed. Aragorn, then. He forgot to complain as he was carried the short distance to the window and settled onto a bench beneath it. The room suddenly became immeasurably brighter and he closed his eyes.

 “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It is better now.” He felt Sam’s hand creep into his and grasped it gratefully. Sam squeezed back, careful of the bandaged stub.

“Indeed,” came the Elf-lord’s dry voice. “I think I will be the judge of that.” The healer’s long hands skated over Frodo’s chest, checking his handiwork. “There is a little discharge from the cutting, but nothing out of place. I think you merely moved wrong, Frodo.”

Frodo nodded. The sun was making him sleepy and overly warm. “May I lie down again? My head is spinning and the light hurts.”

The shutters were closed again. “Is that better, sir?” Sam asked.

Arms slid under him again and Frodo braced himself as Aragorn lifted him. Then the room seemed to dip and sway and he held tight to the sweet-smelling tunic. “Easy, friend,” Aragorn murmured in his ear. Frodo exhaled carefully and tried to loosen his death-grip.

“I suggest we let him sleep,” Aragorn said as he eased Frodo back into the bed and pulled up the covers. “It is the best thing for him. For all of them, really. Sam, that includes you.”

“Yes, sir. After I see him settled in.”

“I will have water and ice and a tonic sent up for each of you,” Elrond told Sam as he escorted them to the door. “You may give it to them when they awake.”

“I’ll try, milord,” Sam replied, not sanguine about his chances of administering the last.

Stifling a tired groan, Sam breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed. His feet ached and he looked forward to being off them for a few hours. Duty first, though. Checking that Frodo was sleeping comfortably, he circled ‘round the bed to wrestle the pillow from Pippin and slide it under his head. “Frosted tea buns?” Pippin mumbled hopefully before returning to sleep. Smiling, Sam shook a blanket over Merry and tucked it in. That done, he took the chair across the fire from Merry, and fell asleep himself.

* * *
When Frodo next woke, he was alone and it was late in the day. A lamp had been lit and the room was quiet and still. He lay in the semidarkness, remembering. Pippin. Yes, he had seen him. Moving cautiously, he reached out and felt the Pippin-shaped depression on the other side of the bed. Still warm. Frodo sighed; it had not been a dream. And Merry, asleep in a chair and Sam, aggravated about something Aragorn had said. His lads were all right.

 “Master Frodo?” No, not alone.


“Aye, sir. It’s me.” What he had taken for a shadow in the corner rose from its chair and came forward. “Lord Elrond asked me if I would sit with you. He sent up a potion for you, sir, if you’re feeling poorly.”

“Not yet, thank you,” Frodo replied hastily. Reluctantly, he took stock of himself. Stiff, sore, aching, and so tired his bones hurt. Nothing he could not live with. “Sam and Merry and Pip?”

“Downstairs, sir. Mikah’s having Cook prepare tea, then a feast to celebrate  … well, everyone being all right, I guess.”

“Good,” Frodo answered, distracted. He had never noticed what a melodious voice this woman had. Not that there had been time, of course, but she really did have a lovely voice. A little flicker of light in the dark.

 “What’s wrong, Frodo?” Marly asked gently.

Frodo felt an inexplicable desire to weep. “I feel like I’m watching life from the far end of a spyglass, and listening with cotton wool stuffed in my ears. It all seems so distant, somehow.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Frodo ducked his head, unwilling to meet her eyes.  “I suppose it is because they all have something to come back to. A sweetheart and a hole of his own for Sam, a family and land and position for Merry and Pippin. All I had was a Ring of fire and pain, and now even it is gone. I have … nothing.”

“Nothing? How could that be?”

“My home … I didn’t know if I would ever be coming back to the Shire. I thought not, really. So I sold it.” Frodo made a little moue of distaste. “I sincerely doubt the new owners would be willing to sell it back to me. They have been after Bag End for ninety years or so.”

“Surely there is more than a house waiting for you?”

Frodo made a dismissive gesture. “Oh, friends, of course. And family. Lots of it. Bagginses and Brandybucks and Tooks and Boffins and Bolgers and … good heavens, I can’t even keep count.”

“But no one close?” Marly asked, her voice very soft.

Frodo was silent for long moments before replying. “Dear Sam, of course. And his family. But no one living close. And, no … no one close.”

“Why not?”

Frodo shrugged, still staring determinedly at his hands. No, not at his hands. Marly saw he was staring at the stub of the amputated finger. “I always meant to get around to it. A wife, a family… Bilbo wanted Bag End to always have a Baggins in it, but he never got around to it, either. That’s why he adopted me, you know. One of the reasons, anyway.” Frodo smiled, his beautiful eyes shining with memories. “Bless the old hobbit.” The smile faded. He shuddered, turning his face from the woman who waited so patiently. “Now … I’m … afraid … of dark nights spent alone, of the future. Of memories…”

“Bad memories?” Marly pressed.

Frodo could not look at her. “Terrible. Terrible.” He was staring at his hands again.

Moving slowly, Marly leaned forward and laid her hands over his. Warm fingers laced through his. “Tell me.”

* * *
Elrond Halfelven, Master of Rivendell, Lord of Imladris, sat in the room below with his eyes closed and his face tight with concentration, eavesdropping. To his left hovered Aragorn, King Elessar, his hand entwined with that of Arwen, called the Evenstar. To their right waited the White Wizard.

“Well?” Gandalf whispered.

“It is working,” Elrond murmured. “He is talking to her.”

Gandalf dropped into a chair, scrubbing at his eyes with a sleeve of his shining robes. “Thank the Valar.” Elrond nodded and opened his eyes, leaving the two in the room above to their private conversation.

“Indeed,” Aragorn murmured, and any who might have doubted his love of the Ring-bearer would put aside that doubt upon seeing the relief on his face.

“Yes,” Arwen agreed, the same relief on her face as on her husband’s. “Now at last may the poison he has held inside himself start to drain. He will begin to heal in mind as well as body.”

“It will still be a dark road for him,” Elrond said.

The grief on Aragorn’s face was difficult to witness. Arwen looked at her husband thoughtfully and one slender hand rose to toy with the white gem at her throat. “The memory of fear and darkness will always trouble him. Yet perhaps there are things his friends can do to light his way.”

“What are you all doing in here?” Merry demanded, leaning around the doorway. “Tea’s ready!”

* * *
By the time Marly came out of Frodo’s room, tea was over and it was edging on to supper-time. Aragorn had taken the hobbits aside and explained that they could not return to Frodo’s room just yet. He did not say why, exactly, but the hobbits knew. After tea he had suggested a smoke and they joined him readily, as did Gimli and Gandalf. Mikah sent them all outside.

By the time they finished their pipes, the early night was falling and the first stars were glittering overhead. When Marly emerged from Frodo’s room, Aragorn saw the hobbits start, and realised they had been waiting to hear the door. He followed them back in just as Marly came down the stairs, wiping tears from her eyes. She smiled at them tremulously and sought out the Elf-lord. “I offered him the draught, but he wouldn’t take it,” she told Elrond with a curtsy. “He needs to rest, my lord.”

“Not with such memories foremost in his mind,” Elrond told her. “His dreams would be riddled with nightmares and horror, and perhaps undo much of the good you have done.”

“I have something that will please him, I think,” Aragorn said.

Gandalf smiled, his eyes twinkling. “Go. I will arrange the rest.”

“What? What is it?” asked Pippin as they trailed Aragorn and Elrond up the stairs. He paused on one, biting down on a whimper. Merry dropped back and slid an arm around his waist, taking some of his weight.

“Something that will please him,” Aragorn repeated maddeningly. “And I want you to rest that leg tomorrow, Pippin.”

“We will not keep him long,” Elrond added as he knocked on the door to Frodo’s room.

“Come in!” Frodo’s voice through the door sounded somewhat thick, but when Elrond opened it, there was no sign of tears on the Ring-bearer’s face. Only a healer or a loving cousin or friend would have noticed the slight trembling of his hands.

“Do you feel up to visitors, Frodo?” Aragorn asked.

“Visitors?” Frodo seemed to debate with himself for a moment, then nodded.

Aragorn and Elrond entered, followed by three hobbits. Shortly after came several Elves, a dwarf, Marly and Peter, Faramir and Éowyn, Éomer, Mikah, and most of inn's staff. Though the most spacious accommodation the inn offered, Frodo’s room felt small by the time everyone crowded in. Frodo greeted them all politely, obviously at a loss.

“You may have guests only for a short time,” Elrond told him when everyone had found a place to sit or stand. “Then supper, the draught, and bed.”

“All right,” Frodo said. “But why–” A high voice from downstairs interrupted him, shrill and excited. A second voice, wobbling between childhood and adulthood, shushed the other.

“Here they come now,” Aragorn said with a smile.

Feet pounded on the stairs. The thunderous advance stopped abruptly before the door and was followed by a faint, careful knock. “Boys,” remarked their mother wryly.

“Enter,” Aragorn called.

Rich and Brion came in, their arms laded with changes of clothing and pipe-weed pouches and personal items. “We’ve brought everything you said, Merry,” Rich said hesitantly, looking at all the people with trepidation.

Merry took the bundles from them and passed them to Pippin and Sam. “Thank you, lads. Now I think the King wants to talk to you.”
“What’s happening?” Brion asked.

“We are gathered to witness my performing one of the great joys of being King, Brion.” Aragorn smiled at the children, recalling words spoken on another night in a small, nameless town, when the present seemed an unobtainable future. He had spoken first with their parents, for it was no small thing he asked. Peter and Marly had given their permission, their faces shining with joy. Now tears of happiness escaped Marly and slid down her glowing face.

“Mama?” Brion asked, starting to go to her.

“Rich and Brion, kneel,” Aragorn said with his usual economy of words. The boys obeyed, not without worried looks at their parents. “I told you not long ago,” Aragorn continued, “that should a certain thing ever come to pass, I would remember and reward the kindness you and your family showed us, then … and now. Richard.”

The boy looked up, startled at the use of his given name. Brown eyes stared into grey. “Richard son of Peter,” Aragorn said formally, “I require your service as a royal squire, then as a healer or a knight in the service of Gondor. Do you give it?”

Rich gaped at him, stunned. This was reward beyond the wildest dreams of the common-born. He looked at his father and Peter nodded, tears of pride shining in his eyes. The boy turned back to Aragorn and bowed his head. “I do, my King.”

“Brion.” The younger boy looked a little frightened, sensing his life would be forever changed. “Brion son of Peter, I require your service as a royal page, to someday be a squire, then a knight in the service of Gondor. Do you give it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Rise.” A moment later both boys were swept into their parents’ arms and thoroughly hugged. The solemn atmosphere dissipated at once and everyone began talking and laughing.

Mikah had to shout “Supper’s ready!” three times before anyone heard him.

* * *
As Lord Elrond had decreed several days of bed-rest for Frodo, Merry and Pippin asked to stay with him rather than return to their own quarters and duties. Aragorn and Éomer granted their requests immediately, knowing the hobbits needed to be together for a time. Sam, of course, stayed with his master.

“He’s better,” Merry said thoughtfully two days later. They were in the courtyard of the inn, having been shooed off by Elladan while Elrond checked their cousin’s healing injuries. Pippin had undergone Elrond’s attentions first, and been pronounced fit to go outside, through all strenuous exercise was forbidden. Which was fine with Pippin, not being enamoured of strenuous exercise anyway.

The hobbits were lolling in the sun on the steps, Pippin licking the sugar off a ginger biscuit while Merry smoked languidly. A constant stream of sweets and treats were being sent to the hobbits, not only from the Inn’s kitchen staff but from every quarter of the citizens of Minas Tirith. For one of the few times in his life, Pippin had more food than he could eat. He was trying valiantly, though.

“Of course he’s better,” Pippin returned. “I heard Lord Elrond say his ribs are knitting faster than he would have thought possible.”

Merry leaned over him and snagged a biscuit from the basket. “I mean better … inside. In his head.”

“Oh.” Pippin nibbled at his biscuit. “Do you think he’ll be all right now?”

“Hope so.”

Merry’s brief reply could not hide his anxiousness from Pippin. “Is there anything we can do?”

“More than what we are?” Merry shook his head. “Stay close to him, I think. You might save him some of those ginger biscuits.”

“Who is that?” With a wave of the biscuit, Pippin gestured towards one of the intersecting alleyways. A Man was hovering there, an older man with a florid face, peering at them from behind the cover of stacked barrels and crates. He did not look to be a threat but both hobbits were instantly on their guard.

“Hullo!” Merry called cheerfully, climbing to his feet. He kept his face friendly but his hand crept to the hilt of his sword. Though off-duty, he and Pippin were armed and Merry carried his throwing dagger. It had not been discussed between them but they would remain armed until Frodo was better.

“I can get Elrond and Elladan down here with a shout,” Pippin murmured, smiling at the Man.

The Man stumbled suddenly into the open, as if he had been pushed. Pippin stood up hastily. The two parties stared at each other. Then from behind him emerged the little girl who had helped them after Frodo’s abduction. Merry smiled again, genuinely this time, and the little lass grinned back.

“Hello! Hello!” She called, waving at them. “My friend here has a present for the Ring-bearer!”

The child pulled the man forward. The hobbits saw that between his hands was a fine platter, covered with a white linen cloth. An enticing aroma rose from it in little whorls of steam. That, more than the man’s face, identified him to Merry.

Merry laughed and elbowed his cousin in the ribs. “That’s him!”

“Him who?”

“The man who brought Frodo the creamed mushrooms. The one we attacked and broke his platter, and frightened him near to death.” Merry smiled at the pair. The little girl smiled back and tugged on the man’s arm.

Slowly the pair approached, the man eyeing the hobbits as if they were about to shift shape into dragons and attack him. Well, he has reason, Merry admitted to himself. Summoning every ounce of Brandybuck charm, he beamed up at the Man. “Well met, good sir! I cannot tell you how sorry my cousin and I are for our previous misunderstanding. It is immeasurably kind of you to give us another chance…” Still talking, Merry led the two into the inn, Pippin following and making sure nothing untoward happened to the creamed mushrooms.


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