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Out of All Knowledge  by Budgielover

Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, 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. This story and all my others may be found on my website,  My thanks to my dear Marigold for the beta.

Out of All Knowledge

Chapter One    

The grey-clad company raced into the courtyard, the elvish mounts tossing their heads, their sleek bodies foamed and dripping.  Sparks flashed from hooves as the horses fought for their footing on the smooth flagstones.  The escort, dispatched from the House by its lord, had met Glorfindel two leagues from Imladris.  At Glorfindel’s shouted instructions, half had continued on to find the hobbit’s cousins, his servant and Estel; the others turned their mounts to race alongside the valiant Asfaloth as the white stallion ran with all his heart.

Glorfindel rode high in the light saddle, centering his weight and the weight of his blanket-wrapped burden over the stallion’s withers to help his gallant steed.  The small amount of extra weight was nothing to the great stallion, but Asfaloth had galloped all the leagues from the Ford without rest, from the moment Aragorn had placed the motionless bundle in Glorfindel’s arms.  Foam lathered his graceful neck and splattered behind him, tiny white streamers that heralded approaching exhaustion.  His rider curled his body protectively over their small, unconscious passenger and rode with his legs only, keeping his seat through ability earned by millennia of horsemanship.  Wordlessly, one of the escort held out his long arms, offering to take the small bundle on his fresher horse, but Glorfindel shook his head, fearing even the brief delay of an exchange.  The Elf leaned forward to whisper in the great stallion’s ear, “Faster, great heart.  Run!” Asfaloth swiveled an ear back to listen then leaped forward, running with all the strength of his unquenchable spirit.

One of the escort broke from the others, a slender, light-framed Elf-woman on a swift silver mare, and urged her mount forward and even with the stallion, fairly flying.  Her eyes met Glorfindel’s as she passed, and silent words of hope and encouragement flowed into his weary mind.  Glorfindel nodded his thanks and then she was gone, racing ahead to carry news of him and the four that followed to their lord. 

The escort flanked the great stallion as they pounded across the narrow bridge and through the gates of the Last Homely House.  Elrond awaited them at the top of the stairs, his sons at his side, the young lords’ arms holding wooden boxes of medicinal supplies and bandages. The Elf-lord’s deep eyes took in his Elf’s exhausted state, the foam lying thick on Asfaloth’s flanks and dripping from his mouth, and swept down the stairs, his great copper-colored mantle billowing behind him.

Glorfindel bowed as best he could from the saddle.  “He yet lives, my lord.  By the grace of Elbereth and his own great will, he lives.”

Elrond’s long-fingered hands were already folding back the blankets from the small face.  Dark hair, curly as was all his kind, closed eyes framed by thick dark lashes, an almost pointed chin with a stubborn mouth.  Skin so pale he could see blue veins pulse weakly beneath the surface.  Even as he watched, the small face scrunched up in agony and a faint cry of pain issued from between the waxen lips.

“Give him to me.”  Glorfindel gently placed the bundle in Elrond’s outstretched arms.  The Elf-lord took him carefully and cradled him against his chest.  “He is as cold as one in death.  Elladan,” and he turned to find the dark-haired Elves at his sides, “build up the fire in his room, and set bricks to heat on the hearth.”  He turned to the other Elf, a mirror-image of the other.  “Elrohir, take the supplies there.  I do not fear now that he will die before we can treat him.”

The Elves, the lord’s twin sons, nodded once and were gone up through the great carven doors of the House.  Elrond turned back to Glorfindel and Asfaloth.  The Elf straightened in the saddle and stallion raised his head proudly.  Quivers ran along both their frames but no concessions would they give to weariness.  “My thanks,” the Master of Rivendell said quietly.  “To you and to your valiant Asfaloth, for your bravery at the Ford and your bearing of this little one to the safety of my House.  Go now.  Attend to Asfaloth, and rest.  You have expended much of your strength against our foes.”

Glorfindel nodded and swung off the stallion.  “Yes, my lord.  Though I will wait to see Estel, by your leave.”

The Elf-lord nodded his permission.  Then shifting the silent bundle slightly closer to him, he turned to ascend the steps.  He was halted by a soft, “My lord?”

Elrond turned his elegant head.  Glorfindel mounted the first stair and laid a gentle hand on the bundle.  “Will he live?”

“I will do all that I can,” responded the Elf-lord slowly.  “But he has been fourteen days with this evil thing inside of him, tearing at his body and his soul.  It is inconceivable that he has survived so long … he must have almost no strength left in him.”  He looked into the halfling’s still, white face, then raised his gaze to his Elf. 

“A Morgul-blade is made for use on one person only, no other.  Once spent, it dissolves into poison and dust.  But the … infection … the evil … it introduces into the victim’s body consumes him slowly, inch by agonizing inch until he fades from natural sight and is lost to all that walks under the Sun.”

“Slavery,” Glorfindel whispered.  “Eternal slavery, in torment, until the end of all things.”

Elrond nodded sorrowfully and folded the blankets back over the pale face to keep the small form warm.  He looked again to his Elf and repeated, “I will do all that I canSurviving such a wound is unprecedented.  And for one so small… This is a wound out of all knowledge.”

Glorfindel did not see hope in the ageless eyes.  He watched as his lord turned carefully and ascended the stairs, the small, still form held close to his chest.  Tears suddenly clouded his own eyes and he turned back to his big stallion.  Asfaloth whinnied softly and pushed his great head into the Elf’s chest.  Glorfindel rubbed him between his huge dark eyes, comforting them both.

* * * * *  

Asfaloth had been cooled and brushed down before the second half of the escort brought in Estel and the three other halflings.  Glorfindel hurried from the stables at the clatter of hooves in the courtyard.  The escort was missing one; an Elf had stayed behind to lead in the pony at the little beast’s own pace.  If he had not been so weary and the circumstances so grim, Glorfindel would have smiled at the little ones’ expressions.  They had each been mounted before an Elf, and would no doubt add saddle-soreness to their sorrows and hurts on the morrow.

He had not time to know them well during their short journey together, other than that they were brave of heart and unflinching in the face of terror and pursuit.  But he had been quietly astonished at their devotion to their hurt one, caring only for his safety and the easing of his pain.  He could, however, almost guess their thoughts as they stared, eyes wide, at the immense House of Elrond Half-Elven.  Meriadoc gaped about him, swift mind calculating and mapping, doubtless trying to ascertain where the Elves had taken his cousin.  Peregrin’s green-gold eyes were enormous as he stared in awe, open-mouthed, unconsciously pressing back against the Elf that had brought him in.  Samwise looked about him at the realization of years of dreams of seeing Elven-kind and their abodes, this one most especially.  His grey eyes were disbelieving, the joy he would otherwise have felt at his arrival here darkened and marred by the reason they were come.

Aragorn, of course, had no eyes for the graceful décor or delicate intricacies of elvish architecture.  Elrond’s foster son had been raised here, after all.  He swung down from behind Ralolith, thanking him with a squeeze of the Elf’s arm and a few words that Glorfindel could not catch over the dancing of hooves on the flagstones and jingle of harnesses.  Seeing his friend’s gaze sweep the courtyard, Glorfindel stepped quickly into his sight then went to him.

“How is he?  Did he make it?”  Aragorn gave him no gentle words of greeting but Glorfindel did not take offense, knowing the fear that gnawed at the man’s heart.  The Dúnadan was filthy, as were the halflings, covered with smoke and scrapes and mud from the Ford when it had risen against the evil that defiled the clean waters.  Before he could answer, he found the little ones gathered about him, their pointed ears straining to catch his answer as they hugged each other in fatigue and fear.

“He is not dead,” the Elf assured them hurriedly.  “Lord Elrond has taken him and is caring for him now.”  The youngest one, Peregrin, put his hands over his eyes and began to weep, overcome by exhaustion and terror.  The other cousin, Meriadoc, drew him into an embrace and began rubbing the young one’s back soothingly, but his sharp blue eyes never left the Elf’s. 

“Will you take us to him?”

“It would be better,” said Glorfindel as gently as he could, “if you let my lord work unhindered.”  Merry’s gaze narrowed and beside him, the little gardener called Sam stuck out his jaw.  The Elf looked over their heads at Aragorn, silently appealing for help.

The Ranger moved around to the front of their little circle and knelt, placing a hand on Merry’s shoulder and one on Sam’s.  “Glorfindel speaks truly,” Aragorn told them, lifting his hand from Merry to push the damp curls from Pippin’s tear-streaked face.  “There is no greater healer and lore-master in all of Middle-earth than Elrond Half-elven.  If Frodo is to have any chance at all, we must allow Elrond to use his gifts without so many anxious relatives and friends hanging over his shoulder.”

Sam trembled at that.  “But surely you don’t mean me, sir,” the hobbit cried desperately.  “I won’t get in the way.   And he’ll need me, even if he’s not awake.”  Aragorn started to shake his head, but Sam would not give up.  “Strider, Gandalf told me I wasn’t ‘ta leave him.  Gandalf said that.   You can’t mean to send me away, sir, not when Gandalf said I was ‘ta be with him.”

Aragorn straightened, having no reply to that.  He looked at Glorfindel helplessly but the Elf just shook his head, not bothering to hide the slight smile that framed his lips.  His old friend had been outmaneuvered by a hobbit.  Sensing victory, the two cousins moved closer to Sam.  “All right,” the Man said reluctantly, “but Sam only, mind you.”  This was directed at Merry and Pippin, who looked as though they might protest, then decided to settle with what gain they could.

Merry drew Sam off to the side while Aragorn and Glorfindel conversed softly.  “It’s not that I don’t trust these people,” Merry said with his mouth against Sam’s ear, mindful of the stories he had heard of elvish hearing, “but just you watch them, Sam.  You’re going to have to protect him for all of us.”  Pippin crowded closer to them both, shaking.

“I aim to,” replied Sam grimly.  “Don’t you worry, Mr. Merry, Master Pippin.  I’ll see they do right by him.”  Then Strider was calling for him, and Sam left the others to follow the Man up and into the House, the memory of their strained faces following him as he and Strider raced down the corridor.

“Come,” said Glorfindel gently to the two remaining halflings.  “You will wish to bathe and refresh yourselves.  I will then have trays sent to your rooms, as you are no doubt hungry.”  The two were clinging to each other so tightly that he had to pry them apart and give them a gentle shove towards the steps.  One of Elrond’s folk awaited them at the top of the stairs.  The hobbits slowed to a halt, looking up the stairs at the tall Elf, and Glorfindel’s heart was wrung in pity for what they must feel.  So many Big People, in so strange a place.  “If you will arrange for baths and for dinner-trays to be sent to their rooms, I will attend our guests,” he told the Elf, who nodded in understanding and gave him directions to the quarters that had been hastily set aside for the little ones.

Glorfindel was slightly disconcerted to find that the two halflings did not wish their own quarters. Elves valued seclusion but Estel had told him that these were a clannish people and he had seen that for himself.  Rather than call a member of Elrond’s housekeeping staff and subject them to yet another intimidating stranger, he himself obligingly moved one of the beds from the adjoining room into the other and waved aside their grateful thanks.  The younger one stayed very close to his older cousin, and the Elf wished there was some way he could reassure the frightened youngling.  Pippin had shown great valor at the Ford, as had his cousin and Samwise, but Glorfindel sensed that this one was not much out of his childhood and though brave, Peregrin was nearing his limits.  He needed rest and food and peace even more than did Meriadoc

Looking about the room that had been assigned them, the Elf regretted that he had not thought to request that hobbit-sized furnishings be placed in the room while he awaited their arrival.  Other things had occupied his mind, he thought with a sigh.  The two little ones would have trouble even sitting in the chairs.  Perhaps the furnishings could be replaced with another set more suitable to their size.  Arwen might arrange for some of the elfling sized furniture to be taken from storage; her brothers’ perhaps.  His ruminations were interrupted by a soft knock at the door, and silent parade of Elves delivered two copper tubs and a great mound of towels, soap, sweet-smelling oils and buckets and buckets of boiling water.  Glorfindel frowned, then smiled as he realized that by the time the little ones had eaten, the water would be perfect. The last two who entered carried covered trays, and he was amused to see the halflings lean forward and sniff appreciatively.   Making a mental note to himself to speak to the Evenstar for them, Glorfindel bowed to the small ones, instructed them on how to contact him at need, and followed the last of the Elves out.

He was very weary.  The unveiling of his power at the Ford had not been without cost.  Rarely did an Elf-lord of his stature, one who still embodied the light of the Eldar, allow that light to shine forth in this lesser Age of the world.  Briefly Glorfindel wondered what mortal eyes had seen in those few moments that he had revealed himself to drive the maddened horses into the devouring waters.

Those unspeakable Wraiths must be accounted for, the bodies of their mounts counted.  The Elf knew well that the cleansing waters had not destroyed the Nazgûl – they could not be ended so.   But they could be unhorsed and unformed, forced to return to their master empty and shapeless until new forms could be made for them and new mounts found for them to ride.  Not even one must be allowed to roam at will, able to inflict its evil on the innocents that sheltered now here.

* * * * *

Sam refused stubbornly to call out to the Ranger, to beg him to slow down to hobbit-speed.  Those long shanks moved at a pace he could not hope to match.  Consumed by worry, Aragorn unthinkingly raced ahead and was soon out of the hobbit’s sight.  Sam gritted his teeth and leaned forward and churned after the man, his furry feet a blur on the polished wooden floors.  He skidded around a corner and hopped on one foot to regain his balance, slipping on the wax.


Sam spun at the cry, his heart refusing to believe what his ears told him.  It was impossible.  Impossible.  But he had heard that dear voice from his babyhood; lifted in amusement, giving encouragement in teaching, spinning wondrous tales in spare moments as he followed his father in the gardens.  His first master.

Bilbo held out his arms and Sam ran into them, the tears he had held back with such determination undermined and undamed by this unlooked-for miracle.  Dimly he registered the thinness of his old master – Bilbo was one hundred, twenty-eight now, after all, bless him, and Sam loosened his grip, careful of crushing the frail bones.  Bilbo hugged him back, heedless, laughing as tears of his own ran down his wrinkled face.

“Sir,” gasped Sam at last, “I don’t understand.  You came here?  And you never sent no letters, nor came home to visit?  The Gaffer worried, he did.  And Mr. Frodo, he’s never stopped hoping you would come back.”

Bilbo hugged him close again then released him.  “I know, Sam.  But I had to, you see.  It was time Frodo was his own hobbit, and I did so want to travel again.”  The old hobbit laughed, his deep brown eyes sparkling.  “And I did, too, for awhile.  Visited Dale and the Misty Mountains, and other places besides.  I did just what I wanted to, until I came here and imposed upon Elrond, and I’ve been here ever since.”

“But no letters,” pursued Sam, unable to overcome the enormity of that.  “Mr. Frodo fretted so, wondering if you were all right.  He kept up the Birthday Party every year, even if it did get smaller.  Why, if’n he’d know you were so close, he’d have -”

“Exactly, Sam,” Bilbo said with a nod.  “He’d have come here like lightening.  Do what I didn’t want him to.  It was time for Frodo to come into his own … live his own life without the interference of crotchety old Uncle Bilbo.”  Bilbo smiled wistfully, brown eyes distant.  “I always rather hoped he’d come to visit me one day, though, when he was ready.  No, Sam my lad, Frodo is Master of Bag End now, and that’s the way it should be.”

Sam pulled back and searched the dear, wrinkled face.  Did Bilbo not know?  The old hobbit’s next words disabused him of that notion.

“Now,” Bilbo said softly.  “Follow me.  Elrond had me sent for when Glorfindel brought him in, and said you’d all soon be following.  It seems I shall see all of my favorite lads today.” He gave a tremulous smile.  “I’ll show you where they’ve put Frodo.  Elrond thought he might feel better with me there, even if he’s still unconscious.  He’ll need you too, Sam.”

Sam’s brief joy was washed away in a tide of bitter fear.  Numbly he followed the old hobbit along a long corridor.  Bilbo stopped before a great wooden door and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.  Sam did the same, feeling his insides quiver so that he felt ill.  He took one more deep breath and opened the door to a scene of horror.

* TBC *


Chapter Two

Sam stood just inside the door and stared in horror.  Dimly, he felt Bilbo clasp his arm to steady himself, the old hobbit’s moan barely registering.  Tall Elves were rushing to and fro in what seemed to the hobbits to be ordered panic.  The source of their alarm lay motionless on the great bed in the center of the room, almost hidden by slender, graceful forms.

At Bilbo’s quiet moan, the great lord seated at Frodo’s bedside raised his dark head and his deep eyes centered on the old hobbit.  Elrond Half-elven, Master of the Last Homely House, Sam realized.  Right out o’ the storytellers’ talesNever thought I’d live to see the day.  There could be no question of it; the Elf’s noble bearing proclaimed him Lord more than any golden crown ever could.

What he was doing to Frodo remained hidden by the surrounding figures but when he raised his hand, it was red from fingertips to the wrist.  Sam put his palm over his mouth to stifle the shriek that rose in his throat.

“Mithrandir,” said the Elf-lord brusquely.  The next thing Sam was aware of, a great grey robe filled all his vision and huge but gentle hands were guiding he and Bilbo from the room, pulling the door shut behind them.

Gandalf knelt and looked sorrowfully into their faces, then surprised Sam by pulling them both into a hug.  He released Sam and put both of his hands on Bilbo’s shaking shoulders.  “You must be strong, old friend,” the wizard whispered.

The old hobbit looked as if he might faint.  Hurriedly Gandalf reached out a long arm and pulled a chair over, and Sam overcame his shock long enough to guide his old master up into it.  Bilbo’s legs dangled over the edge but some color began to creep back into his lined face.

“Mr. Gandalf, sir…” Sam began, then trailed off.  It was not his place to question the wizard.  To demand why Gandalf had broken faith, why he had not been there to protect Frodo.  Why he had allowed this to happen.  Sam swallowed against a scorchingly dry throat and met the wizard’s eyes.  “Is Mr. Frodo going to die?” he asked, hearing his own flat words as if they came from another.

Gandalf did not answer directly.  He rose stiffly and sought another chair for himself, leaning his staff against the wall.  “Frodo has a very strong will, Sam,“ he said at last.  “He is fighting and he continues to fight.  Elrond is doing all that he can.  Your help is needed, too, both of you, if you can contain your emotions and lend Frodo strength without letting him feel your fear.” 

“Don’t know as I can do that, sir,” Sam whispered, feeling that shaky-sick feeling start up in his stomach again.  Great gulping sobs threatened his hard won self-control.  “Mr. Frodo’s always been able ‘ta see right through me.”

Gandalf’s hand clasped his shoulder gently.  “Right now, he needs to hear a familiar voice, Sam, and to feel the comfort of a steadying touch.  That is more important than any words you might give him.”  The wizard’s sharp eyes peered into the hobbit’s.  “Can you do that, Sam?  Just talk to him, let him know that you are near.  It doesn’t matter what the words are.  Only the tone of a much-loved voice.”

Sam nodded weakly.  Bilbo surprised them both by pushing himself to his feet, though he trembled slightly and had to hold onto the chair-arm for a moment.  “I nursed that boy through sickness and silliness and ridiculous accidents like falling out of the roof-tree at Bag End.  I won’t allow him to die when he’s just started acting like a responsible adult.  Buck up, Samwise.  Gandalf, open that door.”

Gandalf came to his feet and grasped his staff, and Sam was reminded again of just how big the Big People were.  Bilbo marched to the door and stood waiting, his back very straight.  Sam came rather hesitantly to stand behind him.  With a measuring glance at them both, the wizard placed his hand upon the knob and opened it.  But instead of accompanying them, Gandalf said, “I must speak with Aragorn.  Elrond has sent him to fetch certain healing herbs from Rivendell’s stores.  Keep your heads, both of you.”  With that he was gone.

Matters had improved, was Sam’s first impression.  The haste of before had subsided; Elves still moved about the room but with their accustomed measured grace instead of rushing.  The House’s lord sat at the side of the great bed, sponging off Frodo’s chest and wringing the cloth into a basin set on a low stool.  The warm, clean smell of athelas rose from the basin, and Sam sniffed deeply, trying to ignore the color of the water.  The basin’s contents were the color of the fairest of summer roses.

The Elf-lord looked up when they came in and for a moment, it seemed he would forbid them entrance.  He looked hard into their faces, his deep, ageless eyes boring into their grief-clouded ones.  But Bilbo raised his head and met Elrond stare for stare, and Sam fought against his trembling to do the same.  The lord’s beautiful, high-browed features were remote and judging.  Then he nodded to himself, passing judgment upon them.   His decision made, Elrond motioned the two hobbits closer. 

“I could not find it,” he said, and the hobbits were momentarily confused.  “It must be there, somewhere, hidden deep within his body.  That a shard of that evil blade remains in him is the only explanation for this slow fading.”  As he spoke, Elrond accepted a white linen bandage from one of the two Elves that so resembled him and laid it carefully over the wound.  “I reopened it and it bled far more than it should have after a fortnight.  As if the blood vessels had been frayed by something tearing through him, damaging flesh as it moved.  But I could not find it.”

The Elf-lord affixed the linen then rinsed his hands again in a fresh basin held by the other twin.  “Thank you, Elladan.  Would you please instruct the kitchens to prepare a thin broth, meat-based, with a great deal of salt and pureed vegetables?”  Elladan dipped his head gracefully and added the soiled cloth to a great mound of bloodied linen, and to Sam’s relief, carried the bandages from the room.  Now Elrond laid a long-fingered hand against Frodo’s throat and pressed gently just under an ear “It must be got out, if he is to have any chance at all.  But not until he is stronger.  It would surely kill him to endure more cutting now, to find it.”

Elrond rose, and Sam took an involuntary step backwards. The Elf was taller even than Gandalf.  Bilbo shuffled across from the lord and leaned over the supine figure, the great bed’s height and his own stiff joints giving him difficulty.  Frodo lay utterly limp, as if his body no longer contained bones.  His skin was ashen-hued, the blue veins in his face its only color.  “Hullo, Frodo-lad,” Bilbo murmured gently, catching up his nephew’s insensible right hand andstroking it“You certainly took your time getting here.  Almost gave up on you.  Didn’t Sam keep you from stopping to dawdle at every pub and inn?”

“Sir!” Sam protested, ready to expostulate about being chased and hunted, and bogs and briars and biting bugs, and hunger and cold and rain and terror.   Bilbo looked up, a smile lurking in the tired brown eyes.  Sam subsided with a shy, answering grin on his own features.  He had forgotten how the old hobbit loved to tease.  Bilbo reached out and covered Sam’s hand with his own, and Sam knew that his old master understood that he had done the best he could.

Bilbo, with Elrond’s help, eased himself up on the bed and sat up behind the injured hobbit, wiggling so that he was propped up against the carven headboard.  Elrond raised Frodo carefully and laid him in his uncle’s arms.  Bilbo nodded his thanks then wrapped his arms around the motionless form and tucked the dark head under his chin.  Sam watched as the old hobbit’s weary eyes closed and Bilbo started to sing some silly nonsense-song under his breath, holding Frodo close. 

Sam wiped his filthy hands on his breeches as best he could and then drew the coverlet up over them both; white it was with gold tracings of ferns and leaves, beautiful and soft to his hands as elder-down.  He laid his hand upon Frodo’s left, careful not to jostle it.  The white hand, slender and delicate as an Elf’s, was icy cold.  Not just the absence of the body’s heat, but cold in itself.  So cold that Sam’s own calloused hand began to hurt just in touching it.  Suppressing a shudder, Sam withdrew his hand and tugged the coverlet up higher, adjusting the towel-wrapped heated bricks that had been placed against Frodo’s side.

“He’s mighty dirty,” Sam whispered, thinking how mortified Frodo would be if he could hear that observation.  The stark whiteness of his master’s face made the smudges of grime stand out in sharp relief.   “So am I, really,” he conceded, glancing down at the dried mud on the backs of his own hands. It was difficult to ask this intimidating Elf-lord anything, but Sam screwed up his courage and met the lord’s deep eyes.  “Sir, can you give me hot water an’ soap?  I could clean Mr. Frodo up some, anyway.”

Elrond nodded and a raised hand was sufficient to send one of the remaining Elves from the room.  For the first time Sam noticed that people had been gradually filing out, leaving on silent feet, and now only he and Mr. Bilbo and the great lord of legend and one of his sons were left with his master.   “You must be careful not to get soap near the wound,” Elrond cautioned, “nor move him overmuch.  Do you wish one of my folk to assist you?”

Bilbo snorted, more a breathy exhalation that would not disturb Frodo.  “As thin as he is?  The lad hardly weighs a thing.”

Sam was more cautious.  He could feel the trembling in his muscles that heralded true exhaustion.  He’d spent enough back-breaking days in the garden to recognize the feeling and knew how it could affect his judgment and strength.  He couldn’t risk dropping Frodo.  “If you wouldn’t mind, sir,” he said with an apologetic glance at Bilbo.  “Safer now beats sorry after, as they say in the Shire,” he added sorrowfully.

“I will help,” offered the lord’s son, Elrohir.  Sam recalled the name through the haze of childrens’ tales unscrolling in his mind.  Not that he could tell the twins apart actually, but the other, the one who had left to fetch some broth his father had called Elladan.  So this must be Elrohir.  Hah, right brilliant he was.  If he didn’t get a chance to get some sleep soon, he was going to fall on his face and be no good to anyone.

“Thank you, my son,” said the Elf-lord softly, laying his hand once more against Frodo’s brow, then moving down to check the pulse-beat at his throat.  “He sleeps deeply.  I must consult with Gandalf now, and I wish to examine the hilt of the evil knife that did this.”  He gently lifted a blue-tinged eyelid, but the orb remained rolled back and unresponsive.  “He will not wake for some time.  It is best that you rest also, Master Samwise.”

Sam bowed as the lord rose, biting down on his tongue to prevent the escape of useless questions he knew was but begging for reassurances that the great Elf-lord could not give.  Bilbo did not look up at Elrond’s departure, his attention wholly on Frodo’s still face.

So they remained until Elrond’s folk returned with a copper half-bath between them, and many buckets of heated water.  While they prepared the bath, Sam made use of one of the basins for a quick spit-and-polish, washing his face and hands and legs, wishing there was time for a proper cleaning.  What his gaffer would say of his appearance, Sam didn’t dare contemplate.  And what he had let happen to Mr. Frodo, he didn’t think he could ever tell his father.

Elrohir lifted Frodo while Sam and Bilbo undressed him, keeping him covered and warm as much as possible.  Then the two hobbits bathed their injured one, talking softly to him and each other in calm, comfortable voices; Sam recounting news of the Shire and Bilbo speaking about his studies and travels.  Elrohir did not contribute to the conversation, other than to caution Sam again about getting soap too near the bandaged wound.  Through it all, Frodo slept the deep sleep of the totally unconscious.

When his master was washed and clad in a nightshirt (far too large for him), Elrohir collected the bathing supplies and basins and Sam gathered up his master’s things, folding the filthy clothing and laying it neatly aside.  The shirt was ruined, he thought ruefully, knowing he could not get out the set bloodstains.  Frodo had asked and had his shirt changed several times in the first days after the attack but as the wound grew increasingly more painful, Aragorn had decided that it was less agonizing for Frodo to endure a little dirt than the agony of having his arm and shoulder moved to don fresh clothing.  Sam hesitated over the brown jacket, the tiny lump the Ring made in the brown velvet pocket barely discernable.  He looked up to see the young Elf-lord’s eyes upon him.  There was something in the high-browed face that cautioned Sam against asking aloud what he should do with vile thing.  Elrohir shook his head just the smallest amount, his grey eyes traveling to Bilbo.  Sam flushed and swallowed the question in his throat.  Mr. Bilbo was better off not seeing the Ring again; Sam could feel it in his bones.  He laid his master’s mud-caked cloak over the jacket and gingerly pushed the pile under the bed with a toe.  He'd move it later, when Mr. Bilbo wasn't here.

Seeing that the bricks on the hearth were sufficiently warmed, Sam removed several and wrapped them in towels, handing them to the Elf.  Elrohir positioned the bricks carefully along Frodo’s side and against the left arm, making sure that the padding was sufficient to ward off burns.  Sam again placed his hand on Frodo’s left shoulder and his sandy brows knitted in puzzlement.  Despite the bricks’ heat, the cold flesh did not seem to warm.  He couldn’t understand it.  Where was the heat going?

Bilbo had taken Elrond’s seat at the great bed’s side, rubbing aged arms that quivered from exertion.   A soft knock at the door caught his attention.  He turned in the chair to see two curly heads lean in the door, then the smaller leaned too far and lost his balance and landed atop the larger as that one crashed to the floor under him with a muffled, “Uhhh - ooof!”

Sam helped them up.  Merry seemed half in shock.  His eyes had fastened on Bilbo with a look of total disbelief.  Then they suddenly filled with tears and Merry rushed into the old hobbit’s outstretched arms.  Pippin looked confused and uncertain; he had been just a little lad when Bilbo had left the Shire.  Reason, and Merry’s reaction, told him that this could only be one person, but he could not accept it as true.  His memories of his Cousin Bilbo were hazy, based more on the stories he had been told through the years than personal recall.  He edged up shyly next to his sobbing cousin and smiled tremulously at Bilbo.

Unnoticed by all but Sam, Elrohir laid a gentle hand on Bilbo’s shoulder, then let himself out.  “Ah, lads,” Bilbo murmured.  “I’ve missed you so.”  He pushed Merry back a bit and made a great show of studying them both, a small smile tugging at the corners of his old mouth.  “Meriadoc, my boy, you look just like your father.  And Peregrin … little Pippin … you were such a scamp when I left.  Do you still sneak into pantries and beg Merry to teach you how to pilfer from garden patches?”

At this, Merry gave a great sob and fought to control himself.  Sam watched him sympathetically, understanding the shock all too well.  He handed Pippin a discarded length of unused bandage and the youngster pushed it into Merry’s hands, where it was put to unsanitary use as a handkerchief.  Never taking his eyes from the impossibility that was his eldest cousin, Pip whispered, “Merry, shhhh.  It’s all right, Merry.  Hush, it’s all right...”  More mumbled reassurances poured absently from Pippin as he rubbed his cousin’s back and stared at Bilbo.  Bilbo regarded his youngest cousin over Merry’ head, his old eyes filled and brimming in his turn, his mouth quirking between a smile and a sob.  Privately, Sam was relieved to see Mr. Merry let go – he had watched Mr. Frodo’s cousin knot himself up tighter and tighter these last few days, as they drew closer to Rivendell but could not seem to gain the safety of the elven sanctuary.

Merry had grown quieter and grimmer and more desperate, until even Master Pippin’s careful quips could not move him to a smile.  Sam had feared that the young hobbit was blaming himself for not being able to prevent the attack on Weathertop, for being unable to shield his cousin from the Ringwraiths.  Mr. Merry was like that, always taking too much responsibility onto himself, in Sam’s opinion.  It was impossible that one hobbit or even many could have fought off the Black Riders or kept them from Frodo, but guilt and anger and love and desperate fear do not take much stock of logic.

Sam rubbed the back of his head ruefully.  He understood those feelings, as well.  The painful lump had receded as the days passed, but he did not think he would ever forget the helpless sensation of being picked up from the ground and thrown against that rock wall by that Black Rider.  He had been a thing not worthy of their notice, not worth the effort even to kill him.  Tossed aside like a dandelion puff.  Yet he would step forward again, despite his terror, if there were any hope of protecting Frodo for even a few seconds longer and he knew so would Mr. Merry and Master Pippin.

Merry had regained his composure now, scrubbing vigorously at his face with the linen bandage, then laying it aside.  Pippin watched him anxiously, his quick gaze flitting between all of his elder cousins.  Bilbo was a legend brought to life for the tweenager.  Pippin felt shy and very young, and more than a little afraid of ‘Mad Baggins’ the great Adventurer.  Bilbo must have read this in his face, for the old hobbit’s teasing expression softened and without releasing Merry, he wordlessly held out his other arm to his very young cousin.  Pippin came to him hesitantly and allowed himself to be hugged.  “What a fine, strong lad you’ve grown up to be,” murmured Bilbo.  “Just look at you.  Be of age in a few years, won’t you?”  Pippin nodded.  Bilbo laughed and tousled the bronze curls.  “I remember telling your mother quite a few times you’d be a caution when you grew up.  You’re proving me right, my lad.”

Pippin grinned at that; his mother had often repeated that remark to him, usually in tones of shrill exasperation.  Merry choked, caught between a sob and a laugh, scrubbing at his eyes with his coat sleeve.  “I’ll say.  You have no idea what this one’s been up to, Cousin.  The scourge of the Shire, he is.  Why, he’s –“

“Not done anything my helpful older cousin hasn’t taught me,” Pippin broke in, glad of the chance to lighten the heavy emotion of the reunion.  “Pilfering gardens, raiding pantries, drinking at pubs, singing questionable tavern-songs while dancing on tables –“ 

“Yes, well,” Merry interrupted hastily, raising his head from Bilbo’s shoulder.  He grinned through his tears.  “You know the Tooks – they have a natural aptitude for such activities –“

“We do not!” Pippin shot back, relieved that Merry seemed himself again.  “It’s the Brandybucks who -"

“Lads,” Bilbo interjected, a laugh riding his gentle reprimand.  He looked past the two to Sam, who merely shook his head, too wise to involve himself in one of the cousins’ disputes.  Bilbo released both young hobbits with a comforting pat, his eyes again on the cousin who had not joined in the discussion.  

“We came as soon as we could,” Pippin whispered, his eyes now fastened on Frodo’s face.  “We have a room just down the corridor, and Glorfindel arranged a bath for us and some food.  I brought you some, Sam.”

Pippin fished in his pocket and unearthed two apples, a pear, a hunk of cheese and a huge meat roll.  Sam picked off a leaf and a squashed flower and took them gratefully with muttered thanks, sinking to the floor with his back against Frodo’s bed, suddenly reminded of how famished he was.  And how bone-weary.

“How is he?” asked Merry, one hand still clasped in Bilbo’s.

“Doing about as well as can be expected,” the old hobbit replied.  “He’s been treated as much as possible for now and cleaned up, and Elrond wants him to sleep a bit before getting some food into him.  Then…”  Bilbo’s gentle voice faltered.  “Then he’ll try again to find it and remove it.”

“So it is a shard, then?” asked Merry.  He gently freed his hand from Bilbo and ran it along Frodo’s face, tracing the high cheekbones, then lightly tapping a fingertip gently on the tip of the straight nose.  The hoped-for grimace did not come.  Merry sighed and pushed his cousin’s dark hair back from his pale brow.

“Elrond says so,” returned Bilbo in an equally soft voice.  “Stuck in there somewhere, seeking his heart.  If Elrond does not find it very soon…” Bilbo trailed off, his lined face tightening in grief and pain.

Pippin made a soft, choking sound and Merry slid his arm around him.   “Hush, lad,” Merry murmured, unconsciously returning the comfort given him but moments before.  He hugged the tweenager.  “He’ll be all right now.  Cousin Bilbo will see to it.”  Merry shared a wry grin with the old hobbit over the tweenager’s head.  ”Sam,” Merry said still in that quiet voice, “do you have one of those apples left?  It’s been nearly a quarter-hour – I imagine Pip’s hungry again.”   When he did not receive a reply, Merry repeated, “Sam?”  He leaned past Pippin to see Sam sitting fast asleep on the floor, head sunk upon his breast, a meat roll with one bite taken from it dangling limply from his open hand.

* TBC *

Chapter Three

Samwise woke suddenly and rolled over with a snort, aware only that he had fallen asleep when he shouldn’t have.  The first moment of panic passed, leaving him staring blankly at the heavy, carved beams of a high ceiling.  ‘Rivendell,’ his mind supplied belatedly, then ‘Mr. Frodo!’

Sam bolted upright in the soft bed in which he had been placed, his heart pounding.  The blankets were twisted around him and he fought them, arms flailing.  “Easy, Sam, easy,” murmured a soft voice in his ear, and a hand squeezed his shoulder gently.  Sam’s frantic gaze fell on Merry, and the other hobbit calmed him with a shake of the head and a shushing motion.

Sam relaxed, feeling the perspiration that had sprung out all over his body cool on his skin.  Mr. Bilbo was slumped in the chair by Frodo’s bed, snoring softly.  The warmth at his back had to be Master Pippin, then.  They were on a low divan piled with soft cushions, but how he got there Sam could not remember.  Sam eased himself carefully off and turned around.  The tweenager mumbled something in his sleep and wiggled his small, compact body into the snug depression Sam had left.  Worming the blankets carefully out from under Pippin, Sam spread them over the curled-up form and pulled up the coverlet. 

Sam stumbled over to the replenished washbasin and cupped his hands, liberally splashing cold water on his face and the back of his neck and into his hair, grateful for the shock.  He raised his dripping head and looked out of the great windows inset in the balcony doors, closed now against the approaching chill.  The shadows had lengthened while he slept; it was late evening and the cold stars were twinkling.  Merry solemnly handed him a towel.

“How is he?” Sam asked.

Merry sighed tiredly and leaned against the washstand.  “No change.  Lord Elrond’s been back twice to check on him.  And both of his sons have come back to change the bricks and bring more blankets and see that we have everything we need.  Gandalf and Aragorn, too.”  He yawned and rolled his shoulders, loosening tight muscles.  “Very nice of them, actually.”  Merry smiled faintly.  “Bilbo’s been asleep since they left.  All that coming and going and you and Pippin never even woke up.”  He nodded affectionately at Pippin’s silent form, all of which could be seen were a few bronze curls corkscrewing out from beneath the coverlet.

Feeling more himself, Sam tiptoed alongside Bilbo to peer into the bed.  His caution was unnecessary; Frodo seemed not to have so much as stirred, except perhaps that his ghostly face had grown even whiter.  A sudden wave of grief washed over Sam, and he sank to his knees alongside the bed and buried his face into the side of the coverlet, bunching the fine cloth in his fists.

“Sam,” Merry whispered, squeezing the quivering shoulder gently, “he’s going to make it.  You just watch, Sam.  There’s no more stubborn a hobbit than a Baggins.”

“I would take exception to that, young Meriadoc,” Bilbo replied, opening one bright brown eye, “if it did not happen to be true.”  A thin-boned hand patted Sam tenderly on the head and the stocky hobbit climbed slowly to his feet, straightened and dashed the tears from his eyes.  Bilbo stretched cautiously in the overlarge chair, wincing as old joints popped.  “And our Frodo is possibly the most stubborn Baggins I have ever met.”

Pippin raised his head at the others’ voices, his face sleepy and decorated with pillow-creases.  Then his eyes widened and he scrambled off the couch to join them at the bedside, frightened and disoriented.  Merry slipped an arm around the tweenager.  “Relax, Pippin.  He’s still sleeping.  Did you have a good rest, my lad?”

Pippin nodded wordlessly, his eyes on Frodo’s still face.  Some of the tension went out of his slight form and he sagged against Merry, yawning prodigiously.  Then he looked into Merry’s exhausted face and was distressed at what he saw there.  “You didn’t get any sleep at all, did you, Merry?  You watched over us, instead.”  Pippin scrubbed at his nose, then said to his kinsman firmly, “Into the bed, Cousin.  Let us watch for a while.”

Merry nodded, too worn to argue.  Sam held the blankets up while Merry crawled in, asleep almost before his head settled on the pillow.  Bilbo chuckled quietly.  “No need to keep your voices low, lads.  You couldn’t wake our Merry with a cartload of Gandalf’s fireworks.”  Waving aside their offers of aid, the old hobbit levered himself stiffly from the chair and bent over Frodo.

“When are you going to wake up, my lad?” he murmured.  “When am I going to see those beautiful eyes of yours again?”  Bilbo stroked the dark hair gently, traced the alabaster features.  But Frodo never stirred, nor responded to the loved, so-missed voice.

“What are we going to do?” whispered Sam.

Bilbo paused in his loving perusal of his nephew’s face and looked up.  “Do?  Not much we can do.  It’s all up to Elrond, now.  And Frodo.”  The calmness of his voice was given the lie by the ceaseless rubbing of his gnarled hands.

“Do you suppose we could get something to eat?” asked Pippin timidly, still a little in awe of this famous cousin.  “I’m afraid I’m dreadfully hungry.”

Sam realized he was, too.  “Sir?” he asked Bilbo.  Bilbo seemed distracted, his brow furrowed and his gaze abstracted.  “Mr. Bilbo?” Sam repeated a little louder. 

The old hobbit jumped.  Sam wondered where his mind had wandered.  “What, my boy?”

“Can you tell us how ‘ta get some food, sir?  Master Pippin and me are right hungry.”  Next to Sam, Pippin managed to look hopeful and hungry both, and Bilbo laughed.

“That I can.  I rarely eat in the Great Hall anymore myself … not much of an appetite these days.  I will have trays sent here, if you don’t want to go to the dining hall.”  The old hobbit smiled at the two quick nods, and Sam beamed in relief.  If he had to leave his master to eat, then he’d go hungry.  Or ask Pippin to bring him something - but it seemed that neither of those options would be necessary.

Bilbo walked toward the great wooden door, but it swung silently open before he reached it.  Gandalf and Aragorn stood there as if by magic, their hands clamped around great trays from which drifted the most delectable smells.  Pippin sniffed unabashedly, his sharp face breaking into a grin.  The two Big Folk were relieved of their burdens by eager hands and even Bilbo helped in setting out the dishes on a side table pushed against the wall.

“Dinner,” murmured Merry blearily and struggled to sit up, exhaustion bowing before hunger.

Aragorn pushed a filled platter into his hands.  “The clatter of dishes and people talking doesn’t wake you, Merry, but the aroma of food does?”  The Ranger’s stern face softened into a smile.  “You may eat right there, Master Meriadoc.  Gandalf and I have already eaten and we are not standing on ceremony, this night.  I know you refused to rest until Sam and Pippin awoke.”

Merry flushed at the gentle rebuke in the Ranger’s words.  “I know the Elves mean well, Aragorn.  But they’re not hobbits.  I just wanted to make sure…”  Merry trailed off, uncertain of exactly what he had wanted to make sure of.

“That over-developed sense of responsibility will get you into trouble one day, Merry,” contributed Bilbo from the vantage of years.  “Most commendable for the future Master of Buckland, but not yet so necessary in a young hobbit barely of age.”  Merry flushed again.  “Relax, lad,” the old hobbit added kindly.  “I’ve been here seventeen years and I know these folk well.  They will do all they can for Frodo.”

Merry nodded and applied himself to his food. The young hobbit’s hands trembled; he was so exhausted that it frightened him, and he did not want the others, especially Pippin, to see.  Concealing his shaking was easy to do; the darkness was deepening and it was becoming difficult to see in the dim room.  Sam started to set aside his plate and rise to light the lamps but Aragorn shook his head at the hobbit and did it himself, kindling also the candles on the tables.  While the Ranger was moving about the room, Sam unobtrusively tried to waft the aromas of his dinner in his master’s direction.

“It won’t work, Sam,” the old wizard said softly, his sharp eyes not having missed Sam’s surreptitious movement.  “He’s too deeply asleep at last.  If he were to wake, he would be in great pain.  Surely you agree that it is better that he remain sleep?”

“Yes, sir,” agreed Sam unhappily.  “But he’s got ‘ta eat.  He hasn’t eaten anything for days, really.  He’s getting awful thin, and he can’t heal if he don’t eat.”

“That is true, Master Gamgee.”  None of them had heard the Elf-lord’s approach, or the second opening of the great wooden door.  All rose to their feet and bowed, with the exception of Bilbo and Gandalf, who merely eyed the steaming covered bowl Elrond held on a tray with raised eyebrows.

“Beef broth, well-salted,” explained the Master of Rivendell.  “He must replace the blood he has lost, as well as have proteins to rebuilt torn tissues.  Continue with your dinners, please.  I will feed him.”

Sam surrendered his seat at Frodo’s side reluctantly, torn between giving up his place and allowing this intimidating Elf to help his master.  Elrond seated himself gracefully, one hand sweeping aside the heavy brocaded robes.  Sam and his fellow hobbits watched anxiously as the Elf-lord slid one arm under Frodo’s shoulders and lifted the unconscious hobbit into an upright position.  For the first time a hint of awareness showed on Frodo’s face.  His dark eyebrows drew down slightly and his mouth tightened.  Sam leaned forward, he and Merry and Pippin abandoning their suppers to crowd around him.

“Frodo?” asked Pippin, oblivious to Merry’s “Hush!”

They were overjoyed to see his eyelashes flutter.  Elrond leaned closer too, his clear gaze intent on the pale face.  Then Frodo sighed and relaxed, his head lolling back, slipping away from them again.

“It is for the best,” Elrond said gently, though he sorrowed for the dejection on the little ones’ faces.  “He is very weak and needs to rest, however much we may wish for him to wake.”  Pippin looked up, disappointed and sorrowful.  Merry patted his cousin’s hand and jerked his head towards the cooling food.  With a deep sigh, Pippin resumed his chair and his dinner.

Sam turned back to his plate too, but the food had turned to ashes in his mouth.  He watched as the Elf-lord gently picked up Frodo and cradled him in his lap, turning the wounded hobbit so that Frodo rested against him with his left side out.  With one long arm around Frodo, Elrond carefully brought a spoonful of broth to the partially open mouth and ladled in the spoon, angling the hobbit’s head so that the liquid ran down his throat. 

Again Frodo’s eyebrows quirked and it seemed once more that he might climb out of his deep well of exhaustion.  But he could not.  Elrond felt the small body sag and the dark head drooped against his shoulder.  The Elf-lord had not held one so small since his own children were very young, and he would feed them and sing them to sleep in his arms.  Though nothing of it showed on his elegant face, Elrond was surprised to feel a surge of protectiveness for this small stranger that rested against his breast.  The dark head that lay against him could have belonged to any of his children, save for its curls.  There were no further signs of awareness as he carefully fed the insensible hobbit the broth, tipping the tiny spoon’s contents carefully to avoid the windpipe.

If he was aware of the six pairs of eyes tracking the spoon’s progress, the Elf-lord gave no sign.  Aragorn reclined in his chair, arms crossed comfortably at his chest, long legs stretched out before him, eyes hooded and remote.  Gandalf sat with his chin in his hand, absently combing his beard with his fingers, his eyes on the hobbits.  Not a speck of food remained; the little folk must have been famished.  The Elf-lord knew little of hobbits beyond Bilbo but that friendship was enough for him to understand the importance hobbits placed in the comfort of food.

The young one with bright curls the color of honey in sunlight rose and began collecting the dishes.  The other two would have risen to help but the young one pushed them gently back into their chairs.  The youngest sighed and settled, still weary.  Aware that he was still being watched closely, Elrond set aside the bowl and placed his long hands on his patient’s forehead and chest, reading the slow, weakening pulse of life there. 

The Elf-lord sighed and folded the hobbit’s hands across his breast.  After a moment’s consideration, he removed the left one and laid it across a pillow at the hobbit’s side.  “There is nothing more that can be done this night,” he told the others gently.  I suggest you go to your rooms – room – and rest.  I will try to find the shard again midday tomorrow, when the light most envelops the world and chases away the shadows.”

The three Big People rose and Sam hurried to open the door for them.  Aragorn paused in the doorway, the emptied dishes piled on the stacked trays, and raised an eyebrow inquiringly at Merry and Pippin.  Both shook their heads and moved closer to Frodo.  Aragorn’s face softened and he nodded, then followed after the others.

The silent room suddenly seemed very empty.  “The amount of space those three take up has nothing to do with their size,” remarked Bilbo cryptically.   “Now,” the old hobbit continued, “shall we have a quiet smoke, then off you lads go to your room.”

Both of his younger cousins shook their heads in unison.  “We want to stay here tonight, Bilbo,” Merry said.  “There are enough divans for all of us.”  He grinned tiredly at Sam, who was tamping down his pipe.  “Though Sam seems comfortable enough on the floor.”  Sam snorted and ignored him.

“Now, none of that,” replied the old hobbit briskly.  “I will stay with Frodo-lad tonight.  You three need a good night’s rest, without sleeping with one ear open.  There, that’s settled, then,” he continued before they could protest.  His lined face softened at their rebellious expressions.

“Lads, you’re all too tired to be of any use.  That includes you, Sam.  You can stay here so long as you promise me you will sleep, but Merry and Pippin should go back to their own room.  Merry-lad, you have had no rest at all, and Pippin and Sam not nearly enough. You have faced trials beyond enduring these past weeks and I am proud of you all, for your deeds and for the devotion that you show toward Frodo.  But all of you need a full night of uninterrupted rest.  Frodo’s going to need you all tomorrow and you will do him no good if you are faint with lack of sleep.”

At these words, the hobbits’ exhaustion and grief finally overcame them.  Sam helped Merry half-carry a silently weeping Pippin to their room and helped settle him on the high elf-bed.  To weary even to undress, Merry crawled up on the one next to it.  Sam whispered a soft good-night and closed the door.

Back in his master’s quarters, Sam drew the divan that had already proved its worth as a hobbit-bed closer to his master’s and fell asleep to Bilbo’s soft humming and the gleam of bright old eyes, the glow of his pipe and the scent of Old Toby.

 * TBC *  

Chapter Four

The young hobbits would have slept through elevenses, their hunger overruled by exhaustion, if not for a large hand shaking their shoulders.  Seeing their eyes struggle open, Aragorn gently urged Merry to sit up and rest his back amongst the many pillows.  The Man sat himself down on the side of the bed, the great tray of eggs and bacon and sausages and potatoes with sautéed onions and porridge and toast and blackberry preserves and mugs of steaming, hot tea he carried tipping perilously.

Merry caught at the tray and steadied it automatically, but his first concern was not for the food.  “Frodo?” he asked, fear in his eyes.

“Still sleeping peacefully,” Aragorn assured him and smiled to hear the hobbit’s sigh of relief echoed from his younger kinsman.  Pippin sat up and peered blearily past his cousin, his sharp chin resting on Merry’s shoulder.  Merry grimaced at the pointed projection but did not shrug Pippin off.  They had been led to separate beds but he had not been surprised to feel his own mattress shift during the night and a soft, frightened voice ask, “Merry, may I sleep with you?  I don’t like being way over there.”  He had awakened just enough to roll over and make room.  Truth be told, after the terrors of the road, he had slept better himself knowing Pippin was there safe beside him,all the walls and guardianship of the Elves of Rivendell not withstanding.

“What time is it?” yawned Merry, unable to estimate from the sunlight streaming in through the balcony doors of the room.  The sun seemed high in the sky but the intricate lattices decorating the windows made the light seem diffused and confusing.  “Wash your hands first, lad,” he added, lightly slapping the hand that tried sneak around him to fasten itself upon a rasher of bacon.

The hand withdrew reluctantly.  With a martyred sigh, the bed creaked on the other side and a soft thud announced the impact of hobbit-feet on the polished wood floor.  “Don’t you eat any of that while I’m gone,” drifted Pippin’s voice over Merry’s shoulder.  “You haven’t washed yet either.”  A moment later, the hobbit-feet had padded to the outer room in search of the washbasin.  When Pippin was gone, Merry looked full into the Man’s amused face. 

“So Frodo made it through the night,” whispered Merry.  Tears glinted in the corners of his eyes but he dashed them away impatiently.  “Aragorn, what are his chances?”    

Aragorn’s initial amusement faded under that scrutinizing gaze.  What answer could he give?  “Merry,” the Ranger replied gently, “I have already told you there is no greater healer and Loremaster in all of Middle-earth than Elrond Half-Elven.  If Frodo is to find healing, it will be here and nowhere else.”

Merry’s blue eyes narrowed and Aragorn knew that the hobbit had not missed his evasion.  But to the man’s silent relief, Pippin’s swift return to his waiting breakfast prevented further discourse.  The youngster carried a damp washcloth, a tiny chip of soap and a towel, which he handed to his cousin with a flourish.  “I,” said the youngster pointedly, “would not keep a starving hobbit from his breakfast.  Here.  Now let me at that bacon.”

The hobbits ate while Aragorn spoke to them softly about the amenities of the Last Homely House, describing the House’s routine (with especial attention paid to the serving of meals) and some of its amenities.  The hobbits listened politely but distractedly, their minds obviously elsewhere.  Though they both consumed their breakfast in minutes then had a more thorough wash, it was nearly noon when they stood again outside of the room wherein lay their injured cousin, Aragorn’s hands tight on their shoulders.   

Merry pushed the great wooden door open carefully and steeled himself to go in.  At first glance, little seemed to have changed from the previous night.  Elrond sat near Frodo’s bedside, conversing softly with Glorfindel and Bilbo.  Sam hovered wearily behind Bilbo’s chair, grey eyes reddened and watchful.  He did not look as if he had slept much.  But it was the Elf-lord who drew Merry’s gaze.  Elrond’s hands caged something wrapped in a thick piece of leather, and as Merry came farther into the room, he saw with loathing that it was the hilt of the Morgul blade that had wounded Frodo.

The Master of Rivendell greeted the three with a nod, but his attention was obviously on the ugly thing he held.  Glorfindel was saying something rapidly in Elvish, the melodious language falling like music on the hobbits’ ears.  The harmony of it eased their distress despite their anguish at recognizing the vile thing that the Elf-lord held with such revulsion.  Glorfindel gave them a quick smile then motioned that they should wait, and the young hobbits joined Sam, seating themselves on a divan, quiet and watchful.  Pippin entwined his hand into his cousin’s, and Merry could feel it trembling but there was nothing he could do to ease the tweenager’s fear but hold the small hand fiercely. He could scarcely control his own dread, and Merry could not help but think he was failing Pippin, as he had failed Frodo that night on Weathertop.

They waited for a time while the Big Folk spoke but finally Merry, no longer able to be still, pushed himself off the divan and crept on silent hobbit-feet over to the bed.  Bilbo watched him, his usually merry brown eyes tired and sorrowful.  “He hasn’t woken,” the old hobbit murmured in response to the unspoken question in his young cousin’s eyes.  Bilbo cradled Frodo’s right hand in his left, absently stroking the cold fingers with his other.   “Elrond got some water and more broth down him, but … he’s colder than he was last night, and more pale, I think.”

Merry hitched himself up and peered intently into his elder cousin’s face.  Frodo’s dark lashes contrasted starkly against the whiteness of his face.  Unlike last night, his stillness was absolute; there was no movement under the closed lids, no struggle towards returning consciousness.  Merry stroked his cousin’s cheek hesitantly, but he needn’t have worried about disturbing Frodo – there was no response.

“He’s dying,” whispered Merry, not realizing he spoke aloud until behind him, Sam choked and buried his face in his hands. 

Tears stood in Bilbo’s eyes, and with a shaking hand, he traced the still features gently.  “Yes.  Forgive me, Frodo,” he murmured faintly.  “This is all my fault.  Forgive me, my son.”

Pippin began to sob softly, leaning against Sam.  The older hobbit dashed the tears from his own face and put an arm around the tweenager, and Merry hugged Bilbo’s shuddering shoulders, embracing the old hobbit tightly.  They had forgotten the Big Folk and all of them jumped when Elrond’s crisp but gentle voice cut through their shared misery.

“But he still lives, my friends, and while he does, we will not give up hope.”  The lord rose and handed the hilt to Glorfindel.  “Take this evil thing from my House.  Seal it away in some untenanted place where it cannot foul the earth and air and darken innocent hearts by its very presence.”

The Elf took the leather-wrapped hilt reluctantly, then bowed to his lord.  “Shall I send for Elladan and Elrohir, my lord?”

Elrond had turned back to Frodo, gently pulling back the coverlet and blankets to uncover the hobbit’s chest.  Long hands were unwinding the bandages, noting the traces of blood on the white linen.  “Yes.  And ask Arwen to bring my surgery tools, please.”

“I will, my lord.”  Glorfindel’s bright gaze sought out the hobbits and he half-bowed to them, a courtesy which surprised all but Bilbo.  A gentle smile tugged at the fair face, which quickly faded and was replaced by sorrow when he looked at Frodo.  Then he let himself out and was gone.

“You’re going to seek the shard again, sir?” asked Aragorn.

Elrond nodded.  The bandages removed, he was gently sponging down Frodo’s alabaster chest, cleansing away the blood.  “I must.  His body is stronger for the rest and food, but his spirit grows ever weaker.”  The Elf-lord squeezed the sponge into the basin at his side, watching as the clear water took on a pinkish tinge.  “Fifteen days,” he murmured to himself.  Then seeing the hobbits’ eyes upon him, he elaborated.  “Fifteen days he has borne that evil thing within him, sucking out his life.  Such strength of will is beyond belief.”

Bilbo raised his head but his gaze never left Frodo’s face.  “You don’t know this lad, Elrond.  I do.  It may kill him, but Frodo will never surrender to it.”

The Elf-lord nodded again, but Merry thought he glimpsed doubt in the expressionless, elegant face.  When Frodo’s shoulder was bared and cleaned, Elrond hesitated, his gaze following after Glorfindel.  He turned and selected another of the stoppered bottles, and uncorking it, turned his hands over the basin while Aragorn poured over each a generous amount of a reddish, sharp-smelling liquid.  Instead of drying his hands on a towel, the Elf-lord shook his fingers dry, staring intently at his silent patient. 

Merry watched as the Elf pressed against the thin, livid tear on his cousin’s shoulder, feeling the swelling and watching as the skin gave under the pressure of his gentle fingers.  The wound had closed, until Elrond had opened it last night, and now the cleaned lips of the wound gaped, the edges of the deep wound oddly white.  The flesh did not look like flesh at all, but clay perhaps, or wax … something from which the life had already fled.  Pippin looked away, burying his face in Merry’s shoulder.

A soft knock sounded on the door, then the lord’s twin sons were entering, burdened with towels and blankets and baskets of medicines and strange vials.  They did not greet the hobbits or their father and foster brother, but laid out Elrond’s supplies in quick, practiced motions.  Also silent, Elrond thanked them with a nod, his attention on examining Frodo’s face and eyes.

Another knock, then Gandalf entered and held the door for a woman who followed after.  Not a woman, Merry corrected himself a moment later, an Elf-maid.  Then Merry’s mind shut down and his mouth fell open.  Pippin turned around at Merry’s soft gasp, and froze.

Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond and the Evenstar of her people, greeted her father with a kiss on his brow, and Merry absently noted the warmth in the great lord’s eyes as he looked upon his daughter.  Even the Shire had tales of the beauty of the immortal Elven princess, pub-talk and tales for children.  None of it had prepared him for the reality.  The image of Lúthien Tinúviel come again to the world, so the tales said, but now Merry saw with his own eyes what those words truly meant.  She was lovely beyond the words of poets and the paintings of artists.  The most gifted artist in the world could never capture on dry canvas the silky waterfall of long hair, dark like her father’s, and silver eyes, and a face and form as flawless as the first sunrise on the new-made world.

Arwen handed to her father a linen-covered tray, which clinked as he sat it down on the small table beside the head of the bed.  “Thank you,” he said gravely, then turned to the hobbits.  “Our patient and his servant you met this morning.  These are Frodo and Bilbo’s cousins, Master Meriadoc Brandybuck and Master Peregrin Took.”

The image of beauty on earth smiled at him, and Merry’s courtly words of greeting went right out of his head.  “Hullo,” he managed.  “Please call me Merry.  And Peregrin’s always called Pip.  Or Pippin.  Whichever you’d prefer.”  He managed to tear his gaze away and nudge his cousin.  Pippin’s mouth hung slackly and his large green-gold eyes were perfectly round.  “Say hullo, Pip,” Merry whispered.  Pippin, stared, dumbfounded.  “Pippin!” Merry hissed louder, losing some of his own awe in his annoyance, “shut your mouth and say hullo!”

“'Lo,” murmured Pippin.  He then blushed bright red and stared at his hairy toes.

Merry resisted the impulse to roll his eyes.  A soft chuckle rumbled through the tableau.  “Others before young Pippin have been enchanted by the beauty of the daughter of Elrond,” Gandalf remarked, laughter lurking in his sharp eyes.  ”Though I may say it is the first time she has caused a hobbit to fall in love with her at first sight.”

“The second time,” said Bilbo gallantly, rising stiffly to bow to the princess.  Pippin dragged his gaze up from his toes to glance gratefully at his elderly cousin, and Bilbo gave him a comforting wink.

“She is claimed, Bilbo,” interjected Aragorn, a rarely seen grin on his stern features.

Arwen laughed, a clear silvery peal of bells.  Seated together on another divan, her brothers exchanged an amused look, an expression echoed on her father’s face.  That amusement faded as Arwen glided over to the bed and gently trailed her hand along Frodo’s still face.  “No change since this morning?” she asked.

“The fires of his life burn a little lower,” her father replied.  His ageless eyes turned back to the injured hobbit and a frown appeared on the high brow.  He raised his eyes to meet the wizard’s then suddenly rose.  “It is time to begin.  Elrohir, Elladan…” The two younger Elves also rose and began preparing.  One of them, Merry did not know which, began moving lamps closer and lighting them.  The other pulled the white cloth from the tray.  Metal instruments gleamed there, scalpels and knives, pinchers and clamps.  Merry felt Pippin begin to tremble again, and his arm stole around his younger cousin.  Elrond’s deep eyes had not missed either of their movements.  “Daughter,” he said gently, “would you escort the young hobbits to a place where they may wait?”

“No!”  The cry burst from Sam and Merry and Pippin simultaneously. 

“You can’t expect us ‘ta leave him, sir!” Sam cried.  “What if… What if he…”

“Dies?”  It was Gandalf who said the word that Sam had been unable to utter.  “We are going to do everything in our power to prevent that, Samwise.  There is nothing you can do here to help.  It will be less distracting for Elrond if there are fewer people in the room.”

“We couldn’t stand it, my lord,” said Merry quietly.  “We couldn’t.  Please don’t send us out.  We won’t get in the way…  We’ll just sit in the corner – you won’t even know we’re here.  We need to be here, in case … in case he…”

“I understand,” Elrond said softly, compassion in his silver eyes.  “But you must understand that what I must do … will be difficult to watch.  There is no need for you to see it.  Especially the young one.”

Pippin looked up at that.  The high color had faded from his sharp face, replaced by a grayish hue, but he met Elrond’s gaze squarely.  “I don’t want to go,” he said in his high clear voice.  “Frodo needs me.”

“Frodo is unaware, young Peregrin,” the Elf-lord replied gently.  “He will not know if you or the others are here or not.”

“You don’t know that, my lord,” Merry argued.  “Maybe the sound of our voices will help.  You don’t know.”

The Elf was silent for long moments, his considering gaze resting on the young hobbits.  They stared back, desperation in their tearing eyes.  Support came from an unexpected source.

“Let them stay, Father,” came Aragorn’s quiet voice.  “I have seen the bond between these folk.  They gather strength from each other.  If you separate them during the surgery, they will suffer.”

“If they see what I must do, they will also suffer,” returned the Elf-lord shortly, but the frown on his face eased.  “But you know them better than I, my son.”  He turned back to the two, to find that Sam had joined them and the three faced him unwaveringly.  “You may stay.  But you must not interfere …no matter what you might see.”

Merry and Pippin and Sam heaved great sighs of relief.  “Thank you, sir,” whispered Merry, some color returning to his strained face.  Bilbo looked at them sadly as he accepted help from both Sam and Merry in lowering his brittle bones down in the corner the Elf-maid guided them to.  Arwen helped make them comfortable, offering them cushions and speaking to them in her soft, melodious voice.  As she straightened, her slender hand brushed Pippin’s cheek, lingering a moment to smile down into his upturned face.  Then she left them, pleading the press of her own duties. 

To the hobbits’ surprise, Gandalf joined them on the floor, seating himself cross-legged between Merry and Bilbo, leaning his staff against the wall.  Seeing the wizard also on the floor, Pippin hesitated a moment then crawled over Merry to ensconce himself in the wizard’s lap.  Merry’s heart lifted a little to see Gandalf look startled for the briefest moment, then he hugged the tweenager tenderly before draping one arm over Merry and the other over Bilbo, his hand resting gently on Sam’s shoulder.  Seeing them thus settled, Aragorn assisted his foster brothers in preparing Frodo while Elrond carefully soaped and washed his hands.

It was Aragorn who gently sat Frodo up and removed the nightshirt he had been dressed in, one hand splayed across Frodo’s back sufficient to support the limp form while he eased off the garment.  That done, he lay the hobbit downupon layers of bleached linen and covered him to the chest with pristine white blankets.  Clean cloths he lay across Frodo’s right shoulder and arm, leaving only the left shoulder and side bare.  Lastly he laid a strip of linen across Frodo’s hair and wound it about his head, restraining the unruly dark curls.

Elrond selected an earthenware bottle, stoppered with a cork and sealed with wax.  He ran the blade of one of the many small knives around the seal and carefully removed the cork.  Then most cautiously, he sniffed at the bottle, his elegant nose far from the opening.

Merry could not restrain himself.  “What’s that?”

Elrond picked up one of the long bandages and folded it neatly into a squarish pad.  “This is a very fast-acting soporific, Master Meriadoc.  This procedure would be very … painful … for your cousin, were he aware at all.  It would be most unfortunate if he should wake during the cutting.  Breathed deeply, this liquid will quickly send him back to sleep before he suffers much pain.”  The Elf-lord lightly re-stoppered the bottle and set it and the cloth within quick reach.  Pippin made a soft whimpering noise and curled into an even tighter ball in Gandalf’s lap.

While his foster father prepared, Aragorn’s hands had returned to the hobbit’s ice-cold shoulder.  Feeling along the length of the unresponsive arm, the Ranger frowned sorrowfully.  “Elrond?” he asked softly, his eyes on the joining of the arm to the body.  He pressed gently and withdrew his fingers, distressed at how the flesh failed to rise again at the removal of pressure.   Elrond paused in his preparations and gazed up at him.  The Ranger hesitated, looking at the hobbits.  Then he said, “There has already been some tissue death at the wound.  Such damage will never heal.  Would it not be better for Frodo to take the arm?”

* TBC *

Chapter Five

“Take his arm?  No!  No!”  Aragorn found himself staring into furious grey eyes, almost level with his as he was seated.  He was peripherally aware that the younger hobbits had also risen, Pippin struggling to escape Gandalf’s hands around his waist.  Merry had tight hold of the youngster’s arm and Bilbo was speaking to them both urgently in a low voice.  Sam’s fists were bunched and his round face had flushed a deep red.  The enraged hobbit was quivering on his feet, as if he might actually attack the Man.

Samwise found two sets of slender hands on his shoulders and he shook them off, scarcely aware of Elladan and Elrohir.  “How can – How can you say that?” he demanded.  Before Aragorn could respond, Sam half-shouted, “I won’t let you!  Don’t you touch him!”

With a grace and swiftness beyond that of mortals, Elrond was kneeling in front of the shaking hobbit, looking into the livid eyes.  The lord’s sons glanced at each other and quietly returned to their work.  Aragorn gaped at the normally quiet gardener, the virulence of Sam’s defense of Frodo momentarily rendering him speechless.

The Elf-lord forced Sam to look into his eyes by the strength of his will alone.  “Did I not say that if you were permitted to stay, you must do nothing to interfere?” he said calmly.  “Were you to act thus during this proceeding, the consequences could be most grave.  But be at ease about this.  We will not take the arm, young hobbit.  We will not.  We will not.”  Under the Elf-lord’s repeated assurances, Sam’s breathing slowed and steadied and his fists relaxed.  “It would do no good,” Elrond continued, now transferring that deep gaze to his foster son.  “The arm is lifeless, yes, but the wound was given in the shoulder and the infection has spread in both directions.  To take the arm would not help, and it would surely kill him.”

“But what can you do if he’s dying anyway?” Merry said, scrubbing tears out of his eyes as he gently pushed his younger cousin back down.  Bilbo kept his hand on Pippin’s trembling arm, his lined face tight with pain as his old joints protested all this moving about.

“Even if we cannot save his life, he must not die with that evil thing inside of him, Master Meriadoc,” replied Elrond as soothingly as he could.  “He would become like unto those which inflicted the wound.  Then what remained of him would take the Ring to his new master, and all hope for Middle-earth would be ended.”

“Frodo wouldn’t do that!” burst Pippin from the shelter of Gandalf’s lap.

“What Frodo would do or not do does not matter, young Peregrin.”  Elrond regarded the youngest hobbit sorrowfully.  “He would no longer be your Frodo as you know him, and that which he would become would have no choice.  He would be but a lesser shadow under the sway of the greater, and have no will of his own.  With the Ring in its maker’s possession, all the resistance the Free Peoples could summon would avail us naught.”  The lord’s deep eyes returned to the still figure almost lost in the great bed.  “I cannot allow that to happen.  We must remove the shard, no matter the outcome for Frodo.”

Sam nodded, but his face remained taut and still he shook.  But he withdrew and returned to his place beside the wizard.  As he sank down, Gandalf’s gnarled hand rubbed his shoulders.  Merry dropped beside him, quiet and vigilant.  Watching the hobbit reluctantly settle, Aragorn still felt those storm-cloud eyes on him and knew he would not be quickly forgiven for his suggestion.

Elrond rose from his kneeling position and resumed his place seated at Frodo’s bedside.  But his hands remained folded before him and that immortal, considering gaze lingered on the hobbits.  “Young masters, I do not think you quite understand what has happened here. You do not understand why the shard must be withdrawn, no matter the cost.”

“Elrond, don’t.”  This terse statement came from Gandalf, and Pippin twisted around to stare up into the wizard’s face in astonishment.

“Old friend,” said the Elf softly, “they need to understand.”

“Why?” asked Gandalf bluntly.  “It would only give them pain.  Haven’t they endured enough pain?  Do not speak more of this.”

“Of what?”  Merry was standing again – he really must have a chat with his feet one of these days, he thought abstractedly. 

“Yes, of what?” echoed Bilbo, struggling to rise.  Sam immediately got up and caught the old hobbit around the waist, easing him upright.  “Thank you, lad.  Now, Gandalf, you just let me decide what we hobbits should hear or shouldn’t.  Out with it, Elrond.”

Aragorn caught a half-smile tugging at his foster father’s mouth at the old hobbit’s manner.   “As you wish, Bilbo.”  But Elrond’s gaze met Gandalf’s for a moment longer, then the wizard dropped his gaze and his arms tightened around Pippin.

“I said to Glorfindel when he brought Master Frodo in that a Morgul-blade is made to be used on one person and no other,” the lord said, his deep eyes upon them.  “But there is more to it than that.  As I have explained, such a weapon is designed to wound its victim and drag him down into an eternity of darkness and slavery.”  For a moment the lord paused, almost regretting his decision to tell them.  The four hobbits were staring at him with every iota of their full attention, fear and apprehension and weariness struggling on their small faces.  “But there is more to it than that, also.

“Have you given thought to how Frodo was attacked?” Elrond asked gently.

“They came upon us on Weathertop,” Merry replied hesitantly.  “Strider – Aragorn – told us to catch up burning brands and form a circle.  We –“

“Yes,” Elrond interrupted quietly.  “I should have said, rather, how Frodo was wounded.”

The hobbits looked at each other in confusion.  “Out with it, Elrond,” Bilbo repeated in an exasperated tone that sparked a hint of smiles in the lord’s sons.

“Frodo attacked the Ringwraith that came for him,” Elrond continued.  “Estel tells me he threw himself down and sought to stab the feet of his enemy.  A valiant attempt, but ultimately hopeless.  The Nazgûl drove the knife that had been prepared for it through Frodo’s shoulder.”

Four curly heads; grey, bright blond, sandy-blond and bronze nodded uncertainly. They knew this – why was the Master of Rivendell repeating what they knew and would suffer again and again in their nightmares?  Sam shuddered.  Never would he forget the scream that had been torn from Frodo’s throat as the knife stabbed home. 

Seeing that they did not understand, Elrond elaborated.  “Through the shoulder, only.  Frodo was upon the ground and helpless.  He could not have escaped.  The shoulder is but inches from the heart.  Why not drive the knife through his heart?  Why did not the Wraith simply kill him then and take the Ring?”  The hobbits looked at him blankly, confused and apprehensive.

“Because its master wanted Frodo to suffer,” Elrond continued softly.  “Sauron wanted Frodo to know that a splinter of the Morgul-blade was left in him, wanted him to feel it inching towards his heart.  Every agonizing centimeter.  He wanted you who love him to watch Frodo die in agony.  He wanted those who sought to help to know that they were helpless.  He wanted to begin his rule of Middle-earth with pain and regret and lost hopes, and the slow, agonizing death of the one who had kept his Ring all these years, secret and safe and hidden from him.”

In the absolute silence that followed, Elrond saw his sorrow reflected in the wizard’s bowed head and slumped shoulders.  “So,” he continued quietly, “you see why Frodo must not die with that evil inside him, for his wraith would rise up from death and take the Ring to Sauron.  Everything that Frodo and all of you have suffered and striven for these last terrible days would be for nothing.”  Elrond watched this knowledge sink in sadly, and it pained him to bring such grief to them.  “Your friend and kinsman held off the dark longer than many great warriors of Elf or Man or any of the Free Peoples could have.  That he lived to gain sanctuary here is beyond all hope, due entirely to his own strength of will and the aid and care and love of his companions.”  The Elf-lord said no more, giving them time to absorb this as preparations for the operation were completed.

Elladan had arranged the surgery utensils and now Elrohir washed the uncovered area of Frodo’s shoulder and chest with a greenish, pungent liquid of some kind.  It crinkled the inside of the hobbits’ noses.  Pippin put his hand over his mouth and nose and sneezed, then pressed back against Gandalf when Elrond gave him a disapproving look.

“Ready, Elrond.”  Aragorn placed a pillow under Frodo’s left arm, raising it slightly higher than the hobbit’s body.  He stepped back to allow the Elf-lord to move closer, and his foster brothers took up positions on either end of the bed, one placing slender hands on Frodo’s shoulders and the other pressing down his ankles. 

Elrond sank into the chair at Frodo’s bedside, his eyes never leaving the pale, still face.  From the floor in the corner, five faces stared intently at the bed. Silently, Aragorn handed Elrond the knife.  The Elf-lord accepted the knife but it remained loose and lax in his hand.  His gaze lifted from Frodo’s still face to meet those of his sons.  “We need one more,” he murmured, “to monitor his pulse during the surgery.  Estel, my son, will you ask Arwen back?”

“I’ll do it.”  Merry’s voice was crisp, with no trace of weariness or self-doubt in it.  The hobbit stood, aware of Pippin’s suddenly frightened gaze.  “Don’t worry, Pippin-lad.  You stay with Gandalf and Sam and Bilbo.”  Merry walked to the high bed and stood across from Elrond and Aragorn, resting his hands on the edge of the soft mattress.   “What do I do?”

The Elf-lord was quiet, considering the halfling’s youth and the stress that seeing his cousin cut would place upon him.  Then he looked into Merry’s steady blue eyes and nodded to himself.  “Stand there,” Elrond directed, and Merry moved up alongside Frodo’s head.  “Place your fingers upon the great artery of his throat.”  This Merry did.  “Do you feel the pulse of his life there?”  Merry nodded, face creased with concentration.  “You must tell me immediately if you feel any change in that pulse, any sudden weakening or racing of the beat.  You may count the beats under your breath, if you wish.”  Merry nodded again, his white face set, eyes drifting closed to shut out every other awareness but that fragile, faltering rhythm.

Pippin put his hands on the Gandalf’s knees and strained up to see better, without abandoning the security of the wizard’s lap.  Gandalf gently pushed him back down.  “Sit still, Pippin,” he said.  The old Istari exchanged a glance with Bilbo, wondering if the hobbits realized that Elrond had placed them on the floor to spare them the sight of what was being done to Frodo.   From this low vantage, they would not be able to see the knives and the blood but could be at Frodo’s side in an instant if … if it was necessary.

Elrond waited until Merry was secure in his counting, his fingers steady on his cousin’s throat.  Then his gaze traveled to each of his helpers and received a nod from each.  Elladan and Elrohir nodded as one, their hands firm on the hobbit’s shoulders and his ankles.  Aragorn nodded also, his hand hovering over the tray of knives and utensils, contained and ready.  “Very good,” the Elf-lord said softly.  “Let us begin.”

“Will you cut further?” asked Gandalf from his place on the floor.

His eyes on the uncovered wound, Elrond was silent for long moments.  Then he replied slowly, “I hope to avoid it.  If I can find the shard without damaging him more…”  As he spoke, he gently laid the razor-sharp scalpel against the ugly, crusted gash on the pale shoulder and pressed with no more weight than the weight of a butterfly’s wing.  The knife sliced cleanly through the brown scab of dried blood and fresh red welled over it.  His eyes on the wound, Elrond held up the knife and Aragorn reached over his shoulder and took it, dropping it with a clang into a container at his side. 

Elrond inhaled deeply then crooked his long fingers and slid the first two gently into the opening he had made.  Gently, so carefully, he probed with those sensitive digits, seeking coldness, hardness, seeking the evil he could sense emanating from the halfling’s body.  The flesh felt unnaturally cold, the mortal clay already stiffening through life still coursed through the small body.  Elrond searched in such a manner for as far as his long fingers could reach, then withdrew them and sighed.

“It is no good,” he said heavily.  At this, Merry’s eyes opened and he gulped at the sight of those dripping fingers.  Droplets of blood coursed sluggishly along Elrond’s fingers and hovered on his fingertips, before falling to splatter on Frodo’s chest in little droplets of ruby.  Poppies in a field of snow came to Merry’s mind from somewhere.  Hurriedly he shut his eyes again and concentrated on the thready pulse under his fingers.  His other hand crept up to place itself against Frodo’s ribs, treasuring each shallow expansion of his chest.

“It has moved from the point of penetration,” Elrond continued, frowning.  His hand skated above the pallid skin, palm open, leaving a trail of more ruby drops.

“You will cut again.”  This from Gandalf, and it was not a question.  Beside him, Sam bit his tongue on a protest.

“I must.  There is no help for it.”  Elrond carefully rinsed both hands in a basin Aragorn held for him, then accepted a white cloth to dry them.  He painted another line of the greenish, pungent liquid on the pale chest then with a fresh knife in his hand, leaned over the still torso and placed the point at where his fingers could reach no farther without tearing soft tissue.  The knife sank into the alabaster flesh easily, and more blood rose to the surface.  Elrond ignored it, concentrating on drawing the knife towards the center of Frodo’s body in a fine slice. 

“Father,” said Elladan.  The Elf’s voice was calm but Merry’s eyes snapped open in alarm.  Elladan’s face was serene and his hold on Frodo’s shoulders did not slacken but Elrond immediately ceased cutting and pressed a cloth to stem the rivulets of red.  

Then Merry felt it, a skip in the count, a pulse, then a longer skip.  “Sir –“

“Quiet!” hissed Elrond, his long arm reaching over Frodo’s body to brush Merry’s hand aside.  The Elf-lord laid his hand on Frodo’s throat and closed his eyes, the other pressing the cloth tightly.  For long moments he was still, then those silver eyes opened and he looked at Elladan.  “We will continue.”

Both younger Elves nodded, and Aragorn and Merry more slowly.  As Elrond withdrew, Merry returned to his place.  Elrond’s hand had left blood on Frodo’s neck, red smears on the white column of his throat.  Merry wanted desperately to wipe them away.  He wanted them to go away.  He wanted them never to have been.  He wanted to weep.  Instead he laid gentle fingers on the bloodied skin and closed his eyes to count.

Again Elrond slid his hand into the slice, the skin lifting and stretching with the insertion of his long fingers.  Again the almost infinitesimal movement of the hand at the wrist as the Elf searched.  Despite his care, more blood welled from the incision and ran over the pale skin, pooling in the hollow of Frodo’s shoulder, then running down to stain the white linen on which he lay. 

Time passed while Elrond searched, deeper and deeper.  The strain began to show on the elegant face; Elrond’s lips tightened and his high forehead furrowed.  Aragorn leaned forward to blot droplets of perspiration from his brow.  Elrond did not notice, so focused was his concentration.   “So small…” he murmured, perhaps unaware that he was speaking aloud.  “These folk are so small.  It must be very close to the heart.  Only a splinter, yes, but I should be able to find it…”

This time Merry caught it first.  “Elrond!” he cried, the shrillness of his own voice frightening him.  Elladan seconded him a heartbeat later, “Father!”  From the corner, two cries echoed theirs, hushed a moment later by soft murmurs from Gandalf and Bilbo.

Elrond’s eyes narrowed and he laid his free hand over Frodo’s heart.  For the first time, Frodo moved.  His face twisted in pain and his eyes fluttered half-open but there was no sight of the brilliant morning glory irises.  Abruptly he gasped, his entire body shuddering.  Then Merry felt the irregular pulse stop completely, and he cried out in wordless grief and terror.

* TBC *

Chapter Six

“No,” muttered the Elf-lord.  Then louder, “No!  I will not allow it!”  With elven-speed he withdrew his hand, rising to his feet.   Merry watched, not understanding, fingers still pressed desperately to Frodo’s motionless throat.   His cousin’s body felt colder, a thin sheen of sweat shimmering on icy skin.  Then Merry’s perceptions were plunged into shadow as a tall form leaned over them, blocking his light.

Elrond bent forward over the small form and sought with a long finger for the joining of Frodo’s ribs at the base of his ribcage, then moved above it slightly.  Crossing his hands flat over the junction of his cousin’s chest, the Elf-lord pushed down with brutal strength.  Distinctly, Merry heard his cousin’s bones creak.

“You’ll kill him!” Merry heard himself shout.  “You’ll break his ribs!”  Elrond ignored him, concentrating on a series of rapid depressions.  Elladan and Elrohir watched silently from their posts at Frodo’s head and his feet, one counting softly under his breath and the other watching for any sign of breath or movement.  There was none.

Dimly Merry was aware that Pippin was whimpering, little sobbing shrieks bursting from his throat.  Gandalf had wrapped both his arms across the tweenager’s chest and was holding him securely, keeping him down.  Sam was silent, his hands clamped around the ankles of his raised knees, his entire body clenched so tightly that he looked as if he might shatter.   He was rocking forwards andback, forwards and back, and tears were streaming down his round face.  Beneath his hands, his ankles wore a bracelet of red gashes as his fingernails dug into skin.  Bilbo sat motionless, but his lips moved as tears streamed down his wrinkled face in an unceasing torrent.  Above the other commotion, Merry could hear his cracking old voice murmuring, “Elbereth,” and “Estë” and “please, please … don’t take him from me, please…”  The two young Elves held Frodo flat as Elrond pushed down again.

“Meriadoc!”  The hobbit found that somehow he had pushed himself between the Elf-lord and his cousin, trying to pry Elrond’s hands from Frodo’s chest.  Then strong arms caught him around the chest and pulled him away.  “Let Elrond work,” Aragorn’s soft voice murmured in his ear.  “He is trying to restart Frodo’s heart.  Merry, he is trying to help.  Let him help.”  The gentle but unyielding authority in Aragorn’s voice penetrated into the hobbit’s consciousness and brought him back to himself.  Elrond was trying to help, trying to help, Merry chanted to himself.  He shut his eyes against the hot press of tears and shivered in acquiescence.  After a moment, Aragorn released him.  Merry stumbled back to his place beside Frodo’s head and prayed to feel movement under his fingers. 

Then, miraculously, he did.  Elrond either felt or somehow knew it at the same instant, for he stopped the measured pressing immediately.  He rested both bloodied hands lightly on Frodo’s chest and stared intently into his patient’s face.

Frodo's dark brows drew together and he coughed.  A thick bead of blood glimmered along his lips then ran from the corner of his mouth, a scarlet ribbon unwinding to stain the pillow.  But his heart beat again, and he breathed.  How, Merry could scarcely comprehend.  He thought he understood some of what Lord Elrond had accomplished; the Elf-lord had massaged Frodo's heart externally and somehow encouraged it to beat again on its own.  The pulse Merry felt under his seeking fingers was of more import to him than his own.  Merry squeezed his eyes to clear his vision and used his other hand to scrub away the tears with his coat sleeve, finally dropping his hand when he was sure of the steady beat. 

From behind him, Merry heard the first sound from Sam, a slow release of shuddering breath that ended in such a queer gulp that Merry turned around.  Sam had buried his head in his knees and his shoulders were shaking violently.  Bilbo raised tearing eyes to Merry and slid his arm around Sam, once again the pillar of strength that Merry remembered him as being.  Bilbo looked drained, but he pulled Sam’s head away from his knees and leaned the gardener into his embrace.  With his other hand, the old hobbit rubbed his youngest cousin’s arm and Pippin grasped the wrinkled hand as if it were a lifeline.  Gandalf too relaxed, stretching his back and grimacing as his shoulders arched against the wall.  Bilbo smiled shakily and pushed a wayward curl out of Pippin’s eyes.  “Marvelous people, Elves.  Living several thousand years can teach you a few things.”

“Enough,” Elrond whispered.  Merry was shocked to see how exhausted the Elf-lord looked, dark hair glistening with perspiration at his high temple, his face grey and pinched.   Raising his eyes to the balcony doors, Merry saw without comprehension that the early autumn night was already approaching.  They had been here for hours, then?  The sun had already sunk below the mountains and the red afterglow that filled the sky was reflected in the great waterfalls that surrounded the valley, turning the falling waters red.  It looked as if the walls of Rivendell were bleeding.  Turning his eyes from the ominous sight, Merry discovered that his eyes were burning and his head pounded fiercely.

He watched dully as Elrond washed his hands in a fresh basin, then cleaned the blood from Frodo’s chest.  His cousin continued to breathe shallowly, eyes again closed, face slack.  Merry jerked violently when he felt a wet cloth wipe his own hands; he shivered and stared into Aragorn’s understanding eyes.  The Man knelt before him and was gently washing Frodo’s blood from his hands, and some small part of Merry that was not completely buried in weariness and horror and grief marveled at the Ranger’s compassion.

“You did very well, Merry,” came the Man’s soft voice, pitched for his ears alone.  “I know it is no easy thing to stand by and watch someone you love being cut.  That you caught the faltering beat so quickly most probably helped save your cousin’s life.”  Merry nodded silent thanks, having no words left in him.

Elladan and Elrohir moved silently about the room, gathering up soiled linens and implements while their father continued sponging up the scattered droplets.  That done, Elrond dried the ravaged form with great gentleness and laid a bandage over the wound, securing the edges with some sort of gummy adhesive that he applied from a small pot.

Gandalf sighed and gently lifted the tiredly sobbing Pippin from his lap and laid him next to Bilbo.  Pippin curled up like an exhausted puppy, pushed beyond his limit, and Bilbo gathered him closer.  The old wizard rose stiffly and collected his staff from the corner, running his hands along the aged wood as if for comfort.  “I will tell Arwen and Glorfindel and the others,” he said, his deep eyes sorrowful and filled with heartache.  He stumbled haltingly to the door and let himself out.  Gandalf moved slowly, like an old man, the first time Merry had ever seen him so.

“Aren’t you going to stitch the wound?” asked a hoarse voice, and Merry was so weary that it took him a moment to identify it as Bilbo’s.  It seemed to take a great effort to raise his head to look past Aragorn’s shoulder.  The old hobbit’s eyes were red but he had brushed his face clean of tears.  Pippin lay against him, sprawled bonelessly on a pile of cushions.  His head was in Bilbo’s lap and the old hobbit was stroking his hair, the gnarled hands that Merry remembered dispensing sweets and sugared biscuits and comforting pats a source of infinite comfort.  Sam was absently rubbing Pippin’s back, his face drained and reddened eyes unfocused.  Pippin’s eyes were shut but tears still slipped from behind his closed lids, his sharp face scrunched up and pale.  Merry’s heart twisted for his little cousin’s pain, for all of their pain. 

“No,” replied Elrond.  “There is no point to it.”  He cupped a hand under Frodo’s head and slid the other under his body, lifting the unconscious hobbit slightly to allow his sons to slide out the bloodied linens and lay clean ones, then settled Frodo back carefully.  Lastly he removed the pillow, and Merry’s eyes narrowed at the handkerchief-wrapped lump revealed.  He knew immediately what it was, and his heart clenched.  He wanted to seize it and cast it away, throw it into one of the great waterfalls around them, so that it would be tumbled and battered and destroyed upon the rocks, and never hurt his cousin again. But it could not be destroyed so, and he knew this.

Feeling eyes upon him, he looked up and met the Elf-lord’s judging gaze.  But Elrond said nothing, only sliding in a new pillow over the Ring and laying the dark head down upon it.   Then the Elf pushed the straggling curls out of Frodo’s eyes with surprising tenderness.  “No … I would only have to cut them when we try again.”

“Try again?”  He must sound a total idiot, Merry thought.  But at this moment, he could not conceive of trying again.

Elrond pulled a woolen blanket up to Frodo’s chin then the beautiful white and gold coverlet, and rose to his feet, steadying himself with one hand on the carved bedpost.  One of the twins came to his side and slipped an arm around his waist, and for a moment, the hobbits saw what few in Middle-earth had been privileged to witness.  Not the Master of Rivendell and one of its young lords, but a loving son supporting his weary father.  Then Elrond straightened and once more was the ageless, immortal healer of tales and lore.  The Elf-lord drew in a deep breath and addressed the watching hobbits.  “We very nearly lost him.  I will not try again until he has regained some of his strength.  We are all weary and need to rest.  I will send word when I am ready to try again.”

Still leaning on Elrohir, Elrond left the room.  Elladan followed after holding the door for them and exchanging a long glance with Aragorn that betokened some silent communication.  Aragorn used Merry’s shoulder to lever himself up, and once on his feet, sought Elrond’s chair next to Frodo’s bedside.  He slumped into it and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, and raked his fingers through his hair.  He sighed tiredly, his whole body drooping with exhaustion.

Merry turned around when Sam let out his breath in a great gust of air and dragged himself to his feet.  If he had to support himself against the wall for a moment, no one remarked upon it.  “That’s it, then,” Sam said vaguely.  Merry looked at him blankly.  “Meaning no disrespect, sirs, but I think we’d all be better off for some supper an’ bed.  We’ve missed luncheon – tea, too.  I’ll just ask for some trays, shall I?”

No one answered him.  Pippin sniffed and sat up, but still leaned against Bilbo.  Merry took one more look into Frodo’s face and staggered over to Sam’s vacated place, collapsing into the cushions as if his legs would no longer hold him up. 

Sam nodded to himself.  They needed doing for.  He couldn’t help his master, but until he could do for Mr. Frodo, he’d do for his master’s kin.  Sam walked stiffly to the door and opened it to find, as he had expected, an Elf waiting there.  A few quiet words, then he shut the door and rejoined the others.  No one said anything until a soft knock at the door announced the arrival of the trays.  Sam directed the Elves to place them on the small side-table and thanked them in a soft voice, closing the door upon them then handing out the trays himself.  Merry took his and stared at the food in rising nausea, seeing in his mind his own trembling hands bathed red with Frodo's blood. The tray shook in his grasp.   

“I can’t.  I just can’t.  Pippin, you take it.”  Merry held out his untouched tray to the perpetually hungry tweenager, but Pippin just shook his head, pushing away his dinner for the first time in his cousin’s memory.

“Now lads,” Bilbo began comfortingly, “you’ve got to keep your strength up.  Frodo will need you to keep him entertained when he’s better.”  To demonstrate, he took a bite of the bread, then choked on it.  Merry pounded him gently on the back.  Sam hadn’t even asked for food for himself, and Aragorn’s tray cooled unwanted and ignored. 

After they had given up all pretence of eating, Bilbo required Aragorn’s help to gain his feet.  He swayed alarmingly and the Ranger was quick to catch him and settle the old hobbit in his arms to carry him to his room.   The Man stopped in the doorway and looked back at them.  “All of you, rest.  Bilbo is right – Frodo will need you.  I will return and stay with Frodo and Sam this night.”  Merry shook his head, but the forming of an intelligent argument was beyond him.  “I’ll call you if anything changes,” Aragorn assured them, “but you must rest.”  His eyes canted to Bilbo, already dozing in his arms, and then to Pippin, who was weaving on his feet.  Merry yielded, undone by the sight of their exhaustion.  He leaned over his unconscious cousin and gently kissed Frodo on the brow, followed by Pippin.  Sam trailed after them to the door and stood looking forlornly after them, despite Aragorn’s reassurances that he would return shortly.

Upon arriving at their quarters, Merry and Pippin found that the enormous elven furniture had been replaced by smaller beds and chairs and tables.  Without understanding why, they felt reassured by the more familiar sized furnishings, and by the care shown them for their comfort.  Silk nightshirts lay folded neatly on each bed and Merry fingered his in wonderment at the softness of the weave.

It was full night now, but the young hobbits were still too unsettled and frightened to sleep, despite their exhaustion.  Pippin wandered about the room, admiring the graceful lines of the furniture, speculating on what lay beyond their balcony, asking his elder cousin a myriad of questions that would have driven Merry mad had he not so well understood the tweenager’s chatter, his seeking to cover his distress with activity and questions that turned his mind from their cousin lying near to death in another room of this great, imposing House.  Pippin was so tired he was shaking, about to collapse but unable to be still.  At last Merry sat Pippin down on the balcony, filled and handed him his pipe, and told him to spend a few minutes looking at the stars. 

Merry sought a different distraction.  A small, beautifully carved desk graced the wall of the room given them, and Pippin’s explorations had discovered a quill and small bottle of ink, paper and envelopes.  Guilt tugged at Merry – his family and Pip’s would be frantic by now.  Sam’s family, too.  He wondered if news of the incident in Bree would have reached them.  Frodo had introduced himself to the inn’s owner as “Mr. Underhill,” but he and Pippin and Sam had never attempted to hide their identities.  The names Took and Brandybuck would certainly be remarked upon.  “Strange as news from Bree” the saying went … the news had gotten much stranger than he quite knew how to explain. 

Merry dangled his legs off the desk’s chair and swung them idly while he considered what he might write.  Dear Mum and Dad, he composed in his head.  Then Dear Mother and Father.  No, they would know something was wrong, then, if he wrote so formally.  He toyed with the quill, tracing it over the fine vellum but did not dip it into the inkwell.  Dear Mum and Dad, Pippin and I and Frodo and Sam Gamgee are in Rivendell.  The Elves call it Imladris, east of Bree.  And Cousin Bilbo is here!  He has been for quite sometime –“ Merry stopped.  He had no right to inform their family of Bilbo’s presence.  Bilbo had not, in all the time that he had lived in Rivendell.  Sighing in regret, Merry edited out that section of his as yet unwritten letter and changed the subject.  We are …he stopped again.  Pippin and Sam and I are fine.  Frodo was injured during our journey, but the Elves are trying to make him better. 

Merry could just imagine his parents’ reaction, receiving this letter out of the Blue.  Especially if they had heard what had happened in Bree.  He leaned forward and cradled his chin in his hands, the quill bobbing forgotten between his fingers.  I am sorry I could not tell you the truth about our leaving.  But truly, I cannot speak of it even now.  So much depends on what we are doing.   I must just ask you to trust me that there is a good and just reason behind our actions. Da, you must not send people after us. They wouldn’t be able to find their way here, and the Road is too dangerous.  Please do not worry about us – we are in no danger and are being treated with every courtesy here.  Frodo… A tear escaped Merry’s closed eyes and he fought the others back.  He could not bear to tell them what had happened.  Frodo was very badly hurt and he may... another slow tear, he may not recoverWe will know in the next couple of days.

Please tell Pip’s parents that he is with me and is well.  And Sam’s Gaffer and his family, too.  Rivendell is beautiful and there are Elves everywhere!  The food is wonderful here.  Even in his own mind, that reassurance fell flat.  Desperately, Merry strove to find something comforting to tell his family.  Gandalf is here, too, so we are among friends.  On second thought, he wasn’t sure if the wizard’s presence would reassure his family or not.  

Please do not be angry, Merry formulated mentally.  We had to come with Frodo – there was nothing else that we could do.  He needed us.  I will explain what happened in Bree when we return home.   None of us were hurt – should he say that?  Knowing his mother, and Pippin’s, that would immediately frighten them.  He had no idea what distorted rumors might have reached his family.  He mentally crossed that out and continued …when we return home.  We will come back as soon as we may.

Mum, Da, Merry continued, stroking his hand along the unmarked vellum.  If anyone comes asking you where we’ve gone, you mustn’t tell them.  I promise you that we are doing nothing wrong, indeed we are doing something very right.  Please trust me.  I give you my word that this is necessary.  

“Merry,” said a soft, scared voice in his ear, accompanied by the sweet smell of pipe-weed, “Why are you crying?”

Merry dragged his eyes open, cursing himself for not keeping better track of his little cousin and so causing him more anxiety.  Pippin didn’t need to be worrying over both his cousins.  “Hullo, Pip,” he said with an effort to smile at the blurry apparition that hovered over him.  “I’m just tired, that’s all.  Just tired.”  He laid the quill down, too exhausted to face actually writing the letter tonight.  In another few days – possibly tomorrow – they would know if Frodo would live or not.  He could write then, when they knew.  Yes, that made far more sense.  Coward, whispered his conscious.  You just can’t bear to tell them.  You’re afraid if you write he’s dying, it might make it true.  With an effort, Merry pushed that whispering voice aside and turned his attention to Pippin, who was watching him anxiously.  “Come on, Pip.  We’d best get to bed.”  Pippin nodded, visibly calming, and to Merry’s relief, did not question him further.

Pippin dragged his nightshirt on and splashed his face with water, making a half-hearted attempt at a wash while Merry changed and prepared for bed.  Pippin’s shirt was still a tad long, Merry noticed, eyeing the curly foot hair that just peeked out below the hem.  His cousin looked like he was about fifteen years old – all he needed was his old plush bear to complete the picture.  Bilbo had given the bear to Pippin for the old hobbit’s one-hundredth and first birthday, and Pippin’s first.  Bilbo had sent all the way to Dale for it, and Pippin had loved it into threadbare tatters.  Merry grinned in remembrance – Pippin had toted that ridiculous toy around until well into his teens.  He was jerked back into the present by a sniff.

Pippin was looking at the second bed, placed across the room from the other, his eyes filling up with tears again.  He looked miserable and Merry could not endure it.  He silently motioned to his own bed and Pippin climbed in gratefully, still not ready to face even temporary separation from his Merry.

Tomorrow will be better, thought Merry as he felt Pippin settle in beside him.  He started to tell his little cousin that, but discovered that Pippin was already asleep, still snuffling occasionally.  Had he not been so tired, Merry would have been alarmed to see his little cousin’s thumb creep unconsciously into his mouth.  Pippin had not done that since childhood.  Setting aside that worry for the morning as well, Merry draped an arm over the tweenager’s shoulders and was asleep between one breath and the next.

* TBC *

Chapter Seven

The morning of the hobbits’ second full day in Rivendell dawned brightly.  Merry knew this because the morning sun streamed in through the open balcony windows and stabbed him in the eyes.  He uttered a heartfelt groan, covered them with a night-shirted arm, rolled over and went back to sleep.

The next invitation to rise came from his stomach.  Faint but increasingly loud gurgles, burbles and grumbles were being emitted from both his and Pippin’s midsections.  Having both been too emotionally drained to eat the previous night and, in Merry's case, more than a little nauseated, both young hobbits woke in a fine state of hunger.  After one astonishingly loud moaning growl that sounded like he had swallowed a cat, Merry finally groaned and sat up to listen to the unmusical duet.  After a few moments of this, he declared Pippin’s stomach the winner of the involuntary rumbling contest, and dragged them both out of bed.

“Do you think Aragorn will bring us breakfast?” asked Merry, after they had washed and dressed.  He was standing by the door and buttoning his waistcoat, one ear listening for footsteps, hopefully loud ones indicating the carrying of a heavy tray, and the other tilted towards his cousin.

When Pippin did not reply, being apparently absorbed in brushing his foot hair, Merry scowled at his back.  Pippin paying that much attention to his appearance signaled that something was wrong.  Merry left the door and circled ‘round Pippin, forcing the younger hobbit to notice him.  “Pip, if anything had happened during the night, they would have sent for us.  You know that.  Now stop fretting and let’s go say good morning to Frodo before we eat.”

“Why hasn’t Aragorn come, Merry?” whispered Pippin.  Now that Merry was in front of the tweenager, he could see how pale Pippin’s face was, making his large green-gold eyes appear even larger.  Pippin sniffed suddenly and his voice quavered as he continued, “He woke us up yesterday.  Maybe Lord Elrond told him that there was nothing we could do, and they’d tell us in the morning.  Maybe –“

“Will you stop that, Cousin?” asked Merry a little breathlessly.  Now the Ranger’s absence seemed suddenly foreboding and frightening.  The young hobbit swallowed and fought for his self control.  “I’m sure Strider has more important things to do than deliver breakfast to a couple of hobbits.”  His cousin looked at him narrowly, tears starting to brim in those huge eyes.  Desperately, Merry sought a distraction.  “Have breakfast with his lady, for one.”

At this Pippin grinned, his gaze becoming dreamy and unfocused.  Merry poked him pointedly in the chest.  “His lady, Pippin.”

Pippin rubbed his chest and looked at Merry reproachfully.  “I know that, Merry.  I was just –“

“Never mind what you were ‘just’,” teased Merry, pleased at his success in diverting the tweenager from his worry.  “Now, do you remember which door is Frodo’s?”

A short time later, the two young hobbits stood outside one of the great wooden doors and frowned at it thoughtfully.  “Well, knock,” said Merry.  “I think this is it.”

“You knock,” Pippin countered.  They stared at the door.

“This is ridiculous!” declared Merry after some moments.  “They would have sent for us if … if we were needed.   They didn’t, so everything’s fine.  I’m knocking.”

Merry prayed that Pippin did not notice his hand shaking as he knocked softly.  There was a moment of silence, then Sam opened the door.  He looked very tired, but there was no trace of tears on his face.  Merry sighed and slumped against the doorjamb in relief.

Pippin pushed past him with a nod for Sam and went straight to Frodo’s bedside.  Sam trailed after them and took a seat on one of the divans, silent and exhausted.  One of the young lords sat by their cousin, and Pippin hesitated, suddenly shy.

“You will not disturb him, Peregrin,” murmured the lord softly.  “Nor you, Meriadoc.”  Merry bowed then edged up by his cousin.  “I am Elrohir,” supplied the Elf, amusement at their confusion shimmering in his grey eyes.  “My brother is the ugly one.”  Pippin laughed, then covered his mouth with his hand.  Elrohir smiled, and the amused glint in his eyes became a sparkle.  That sparkle faded as his gaze turned to Frodo’s still face.  “He spent a quiet night.  He is too weak to move much.”

Pippin leaned over and carefully brushed Frodo’s forehead with his lips.  Then his eyes widened and he turned back to Elrohir.  “Yes,” said the Elf softly.  “He has a fever.  My father is watching it.  If it becomes a threat, we will take steps to banish it.”

Frowning, Merry laid his hand on Frodo’s right arm, feeling the heat and thin sheen of sweat that coated his cousin’s skin where the blankets did not cover.  Frodo did not react to the well-known touch, not even when Merry leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Frodo?  Frodo dear, can you hear me?”  After a moment, Merry straightened and pulled the blankets higher, tucking them carefully under Frodo’s chin.

“Is he any better?” asked Pippin.  He was curling his cousin’s sweat-limp curls through his fingers, then laying each one in a careful pattern across Frodo’s forehead.  He did not look up as he spoke, concentrating wholly on the tiny motions.

The Elf exchanged a glance with Sam.  It was Sam who spoke.  “No, sir,” the stocky hobbit said quietly.  “He won’t get any better till Lord Elrond gets that evil thing out o’ him.”

“Which will not be today.”  All three hobbits raised startled eyes to find Aragorn standing in the doorway.  Elrohir nodded a greeting and the Ranger returned it, then stepped into the room, softly closing the door behind him.  “Good morning,” he said, every evidence to the contrary not withstanding. 

“Good morning,” the hobbits chorused softly in return.

“I thought I would take you to the Great Hall for breakfast this morning,” the Ranger said quietly.  “I have already asked Sam, but unless he has changed his mind…” he paused and looked at Samwise.  Sam shook his head, refusing to leave his master.  “Very well.  We’ll have a tray sent to you.  Merry, Pippin, would you care to accompany me?”

The young hobbits hesitated, torn between hunger and the desire to stay with their cousin.  “What did you mean, ‘not today’?” asked Merry, wanting to stay with Frodo for just a few minutes more.

“Elrond has decided that he is too weak to endure another search for the shard so soon.”  Aragorn drifted over to Frodo’s bedside on booted feet nearly as silent as any hobbit’s.  He laid the back of his hand gently against the pale cheek, feeling the fever that burned there.  Sam tensed slightly; the resurgence of his mistrust evident in his squared shoulders and carefully blank expression.  Aragorn sighed sorrowfully and withdrew, and Sam relaxed.

“Today my lord will get as much water and nourishing tonics into him as Frodo will take,” Aragorn continued, pretending to be unaware of Sam’s watchful eyes.  “Elrond will concentrate his efforts on rebuilding Frodo's strength … on ensuring that he is strong enough to survive one, final attempt.”  Mortal grey eyes met immortal silver for a moment as he exchanged a glance with his foster brother.  “Elrohir and Elladan and I will assist.  If Elrond is unable to withdraw the shard tomorrow…”  The Ranger trailed off, wishing he had censored his tongue before speaking the last.

“He’ll die,” Merry finished for him softly.  “And he’ll die if he can’t bear the surgery.”  Anger flashed through him suddenly, unheralded and unexpected.  “And he’ll die if he does live through the surgery but isn’t strong enough to recover!  Doesn’t seem like Frodo has much of a chance, does it?”

“Merry,” whispered Pippin in a tiny, frightened voice.

There was more that Merry wanted to say – to shout – but he bit down hard on his tongue.  This would help no one, and he was scaring Pippin.  Instead he bound up that anger and grief and fear into a tight little ball, and drawing another deep breath, pushed it from him.

“If there’s nothing we can do,” he said to Sam, who again shook his head, “we’ll go have breakfast.  Then we’re coming right back.”  Sam nodded, and it occurred to Merry that their friend had barely said a word since he and Pippin had arrived.  “Sam,” Merry added in a more gentle tone, “is there anything special we can send you?”

Sam started to shake his head again, then grimaced, recognizing Merry’s unspoken request for reassurance.  “No thank you, sir,” he said quietly.  “I’m fine, I am.  Anything’ll do.  Say hullo to Mr. Bilbo for me, will you?”

“Bilbo is resting in his room,” Aragorn contributed carefully.  “Yesterday was … very difficult for him.”

“For us all,” murmured Elrohir.  “As tomorrow will be.  Brother, you should give the little folk a tour of our home.  The kitchens…“ (Pippin perked up), “the gardens…” (Sam looked as though he might reconsider his refusal), “and the Library” (Merry pricked his ears), “…might be of interest.”  The young Elf-lord smiled at their expressions.  But the smile did not reach his eyes as he looked at his foster brother.  “I believe our dear Bilbo put it best, if I may quote him. Imladris ‘is a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-tellling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’.*”

Aragorn nodded his understanding of Elrohir’s silent message.  He would seek to distract the young hobbits from their grief.  “A most excellent suggestion, Brother,” he responded.  “Sam, are you sure…?”

“No, but thanks,” the stocky hobbit replied, unbending a little.  “I’ll just stay with Mr. Frodo.  You go on.”

* * * * *

“Oh, that was wonderful,” moaned Pippin, pushing away his plate at last.  The young hobbit sighed happily and rubbed his stomach.  He swayed for a moment on the pile of cushions that Aragorn had secured to raise each of the hobbits up sufficiently to eat comfortably then steadied himself with a grasp on the edge of the table.  “I’ve never tasted anything so good in my life.”

“I’m glad you approve,” Aragorn commented, keeping his face noncommittal.  He had never, he thought privately, had the opportunity to watch these little people eat to their hearts’ content.  Glancing at them from the corner of his eye, he wondered where all that food had gone.  Platters were stacked before them, plates and serving dishes and bowls, all very, very empty.  It was amazing.  In retrospect, he rather regretted not paying more attention to their claims of impending starvation on the short rations he had allowed them between here and Bree.

“That should hold us till second breakfast,” Merry replied with satisfaction.  Aragorn looked at him, aghast.  In a rare mistake, Merry misinterpreted the look.  “We are going to have second breakfast, aren’t we, Aragorn?  You aren’t going to make us go hungry again, are you?”

Aragorn was suddenly aware that he was the focus of disapproving stares from the other tables and serving staff.  All conversation around them had ceased at Merry’s plaintive question.  The hobbits were unaware of the sudden silence, too involved in looking at him worriedly to realize that every other conversation in the immediate area had fallen silent.

“Did I hear it said that you have been making these charming little people go hungry, Estel?” murmured a voice in his ear.  Aragorn winced.  The master cook was a force to be reckoned with, ruling his kitchen with an iron hand.  Much of Imladris lived in fear of his temper.  There were dire consequences if the cook was upset – burned roasts, undercooked vegetables and unpalatable food.  Even Elrond was careful never to incur the wrath of his chef. 

Pippin swiveled around in his seat and regarded the tall Elf with enormous eyes.  “He wouldn’t let us stop to eat at all during the day,” Pippin explained earnestly.  “And when we were allowed to eat, it wasn’t very much.  Maybe just an apple instead of real food.”  The young one sighed, a world of grief on his face.  “We got so very hungry,” he added sorrowfully.

“We were in a hurry,” Aragorn said hastily to the glowering cook and the disapproving diners.  “There was no time –“

The chef drew himself up to his full height and stared down at the Man, who he had watched grow up from a toddler.  “Estel, I am ashamed of you.”  A great hand descended on Pippin’s head and gently patted the bronze curls.  “Little ones,” said the cook, “you are to come to me personally if you desire the least little thing from my kitchens.  Just let me know, and I will see that you receive it.”  The hand moved over to stroke Merry’s bright head. 

“They didn’t go hungry,” Aragorn tried to explain, “not really –“

“And I shall see that a tray of my finest fare is sent to your little friend, who remained with the injured one,” promised the cook, ignoring Aragorn.  The hobbits beamed up at him. 

“Thank you, sir,” Merry and Pippin responded, great smiles brightening their expressions.  They looked utterly angelic, even to Aragorn who knew better.  The cook smiled at them, his stern face lightening in return, before awarding them a half-bow and returning to terrorize his domain.  All around them, Aragorn saw besotted expressions as the other diners regarded his two companions, and censure in their gazes as they turned to him.

“But they really didn’t –“ he tried one last time.

Merry slid off the chair, scattering cushions.  “Are you going to sit there all day, Aragorn?  We want to see Rivendell.”  Sighing at the unfairness of it all, the Ranger rose and followed his chattering charges out of the Hall.

* * * * *

Luckily for Aragorn’s nerves, second breakfast and elevenses were survived without further incident.  If one did not count the astonishing array of delicacies that appeared when the hobbits climbed back up on their piles of cushions.  Dish after dish was set before them and consumed with every indication of enjoyment and appreciation.  Various members of the serving staff appeared at intervals to set another plate before the hobbits, and look hard at the Ranger.  Just wait till they get to know them better, thought Aragorn, glaring at the table with dark expression.  We’ll see a change in those fatuous expressions, then!

But Merry and Pippin seemed determined to be on their best behavior.  Continuing his role as guide the Ranger resumed the tour, showing his audience the working areas of Rivendell; the foundry, the weavers and potters and woodworkers, the many trades and crafts required to feed and furnish and support Elrond’s House.  The hobbits marvelled at the bathhouses, the many grottos and gazebos and places for meditation and reflection.  They visited Bill in the stables and spent some time stroking the pony and feeding him small treats they had saved for him.  The stable master informed them that Asfaloth occupied the next stall but the great stallion was absent, Glorfindel off on some errand.  The hobbits enjoyed every moment of their explorations, leaving in their wake a trail of thoroughly charmed Elves.

“Who are those people?” asked Merry, pointing at a small group of Men who were standing together in tight converse.  The three had paused by the great gates, resting for a few moments and watching the influx of Elves and Men and Dwarves.  This was third group of people the hobbits had seen enter the gates, not looking particularly pleased to be there.  Their curiosity was aroused.  These Men were richly dressed, their hands on the bridles of fine horses.  They were grouped around an old Man, white-haired and white-bearded, fragile with years but wisdom and pride shown from his eyes.  All were paying close attention to his words but one.  That one, a large Man with a full black beard, was staring at them intently in return and without knowing why, the hobbits took a half-step behind the Ranger. 

“They come for Elrond’s Council,” murmured Aragorn.

“What Council?” asked the hobbits.  Pippin struggled to climb up on a crumbling wall and Aragorn picked him up and sat him there, providing Merry a boost up before joining them. 

Aragorn seemed lost in thought.   After a moment, he remarked, “My lord has commented that great events are in motion.  Some of these new arrivals were summoned, some come of their own accord.  They converge upon Imladris for a great purpose.  Men and Elves and Dwarves … representatives of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.”

“Representatives?” asked Merry, swinging his heels against the time-worn stone.  Beside him, Pippin stared unabashedly at all the strange folk.

“The burden of the Ring belongs to every race, Merry,” the Ranger said solemnly.  “We must decide what to do with it.  These are ambassadors of their folk, here to debate and decide that issue.”

“I don’t care what they do with it,” muttered Pippin, “as long as Frodo gets rid of it, and we can all go home.”  He paused for a moment, then repeated more softly, “All of us.” 

“Let us go check on Frodo,” suggested Aragorn gently in the silence that followed.

* TBC *

* “Many Meetings,” The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapter Eight

Merry and Pippin could discern little change in the spacious suite assigned to their cousin when they returned.  The sun was climbing to its zenith, casting shadows in the deeper parts of the silent room.  Sam was absent but Bilbo slumped in the chair by Frodo’s bedside, nodding and half-asleep.  Elrohir let them in, holding a slender finger to his lips and gesturing towards the old hobbit.

“Samwise has gone for a sniff of fresh air,” the young Elf-lord told them in a soft voice as he ushered them into the room.  “At my insistence,” he added with a slight grimace.  “Fretting himself into exhaustion will do him no good, and does not help Frodo.  Did you enjoy seeing our home?”

“Yes, sir,” Merry and Pippin answered.  Merry hesitated a moment, then continued, “It is so beautiful here, and everyone has been so kind.  But we’d like to stay with Frodo for a while, if you don’t mind.”

Elrohir raised an elegant eyebrow, looking so like Lord Elrond that the hobbits smiled at the sight.  “Be careful not to disturb him.  Estel, may I speak with you for a few moments?”

The Elf drew their escort away into a corner.  While the two Big People talked, the hobbits crept over to their cousins.  Merry placed his hand on Frodo’s forehead, worried that the fever had grown.  He slid his hand carefully over to the left shoulder, which still seemed cold as ice.  How could the arm be so cold and Frodo so hot?  He sighed sorrowfully.  Bilbo snorted and yawned, opening sleepy brown eyes.  “Hullo, lads.  Been seeing the place, have you?”

Elrohir kept an eye on the halflings while he spoke with his foster brother, keeping his voice low and doing nothing to draw their attention to them.  Seeing the question in his brother’s eyes, the young Elf shook his head.  “He is slipping away from us, brother.  Father will not abandon hope, but Frodo shows even less responsiveness than this morning.  I sent Samwise away so that he may have a little reserve of strength for when the worst occurs.”

Anguish overcame Aragorn, and he fought to keep his back straight and his voice soft, to avoid betraying his grief to the halflings.  Frodo had endured so much, with such great heart.  The Ranger did not think he could bear to watch the hobbit lose this battle he had fought so valiantly.  “Is there nothing that can be done?  Cannot Father make another attempt today?  He will be even weaker tomorrow.”

Elrohir shook his head, dark eyes sorrowful.  “Frodo would not live to see the sun set if we set knife to him again so soon.  Already his heart has slowed, and his breathing is less deep and less frequent.  The fever is eating up what little strength he has left.  To seek the shard now would most certainly finish him.”

“Ah, Merry…” murmured the Ranger.

Elrohir tilted his dark head and regarded Aragorn curiously.  “What did you say, my brother?”

Aragorn raised his head and the Elf saw sorrow in the blue-grey eyes.  “Merry said something to me earlier … about Frodo not being given much of a chance.  It doesn’t matter now.”

Elrohir’s elegant face softened and he placed a slender hand on his foster brother’s arm, squeezing hard so that the man felt both his affection and the sincerity of his words.  “I heard him.  His anger was not aimed at you, my brother, but at his own helplessness.”  The Elf searched the man’s face.  “We are doing everything possible, Estel.  You must not despair.  Those little ones look to you for strength.”

Aragorn nodded abruptly, his features tightening as he controlled his expression.  Elrohir nodded in return.  “They are watching us,” he whispered, dropping his voice even further.  Aragorn squared his shoulders and when he turned back to the hobbits, his stern face was composed with no trace of tears.  Bilbo, he discovered, was staring at them intently.  Merry too was leaning towards them, straining to hear, his bright blue eyes half-slitted with concentration.  Seeing the Man’s eyes upon him, Merry blushed.  Pippin, meanwhile, had been oblivious to the whispered conversation.  He had been gazing over the edge of the high bed at Frodo.  To Aragorn’s surprise, the young hobbit pulled himself slightly higher and inhaling, blew gently directly into his cousin’s pale face.

“Pippin, what are you doing?” asked the Ranger in surprise.

“He always wrinkles his nose when I do that,” Pippin said softly.  “I’d wake him up that way, when I’d visit at Bag End and I wanted breakfast and Frodo was sleeping late.  He’d forbidden me to shake him awake because one time I … um … well, that’s not important.  So I blow on him until he wakes up.”

“And you could truthfully claim you never touched him,” Aragorn supplied in some amusement.

Pippin nodded quietly.  “Yes.”  The tweenager’s bright green-gold eyes began blinking rapidly.  “But – but it’s not working.”  He stepped back from the bed and leaned back against Bilbo’s chair, sagging against the frame, supporting himself with a hand on the padded arm.  “He’s not waking up,” Pippin whispered again, the first tear sliding down his face.  Bilbo reached up and covered the lad’s hand with his own, rubbing gently.

“An’ a good thing, too, Master Pippin – you know he don’t like that,” came Sam’s steadying voice from the door.  “He said you weren’t never ‘ta do that again, after what happened the last time.”  Both Samwise’s timing and his words were perfect – as down-to-earth and commonsensical as the flowers and the sun.  Bilbo laughed shortly when Pippin flushed.  Aragorn smiled despite the heavy weight on his heart.

“And what happened the last time?” he asked neutrally, acknowledging and endorsing Sam’s effort at distraction.  Pippin’s flush deepened.   Merry’s bright blue eyes were sparkling - he knew, then. 

Pippin waved a hand depreciatingly.  “Oh, nothing really.  Just a little misunderstanding.  Really,” he affirmed with a quelling glare at Merry.  “It was nothing.”  The somewhat desperate glare was extended to Samwise.

Sam blinked innocently, but Aragorn caught the closed-mouth smile as the hobbit turned to close the door and joined the others.  “It should be about time for luncheon, I would think.  Should I ask for some trays, sirs?”

Aragorn saw his brother regarding the little gardener with admiration; in just a few words, the stocky hobbit had diverted an impending storm and redirected his friends’ attention.  “A most excellent idea,” the Ranger said briskly.  “If you would be so kind, Sam -”

“No need,” interjected Elrohir graciously.  “I have tasks that require my attention.  If you will excuse me, I will leave you and I will speak to the kitchens on my way.”

“Please ask the cook for more beef broth for Frodo,” Aragorn asked.  “I will give it to him.”  Elrohir acknowledged the request with a nod then smiled at the hobbits.  Before Sam could escort him to the door, he swept gracefully across the room and let himself out.

“Would it hurt Frodo if I sat next to him?” Pippin asked, his small hands pleating the blankets anxiously.

Aragorn started to refuse the young hobbit’s request then another glance from those pleading eyes changed his mind.  Merry too was looking at him hopefully.  These folk were different from Men, Aragorn reminded himself.  They needed the touch of their kind, the sound of their voices.  “If you do not jostle him, Pippin, and are very careful,” he said.  Pippin held up his arms and Aragorn lifted him as easily as a child, depositing him gently on Frodo’s right side.  Pippin settled himself cautiously next to his cousin and laid his head in the hollow of Frodo’s shoulder, sliding his hand under the blankets to clasp his cousin’s limp one.

Bilbo nodded in approval.  “He likes that, lad.  He knows you’re there, don’t you doubt it.  Even if he can’t tell you.”  Bilbo swallowed.  “Now,” he continued hurriedly, his voice cracking slightly, “why don’t you tell me what you saw this morning?”

For the next half-hour, Aragorn sat quietly and let the hobbits talk, answering a question or commenting only when he was directly addressed.  He was content to watch quietly, marveling at how easy the halflings were with each other.  There had not truly been time to get to know them well during their journey; first they had fled before the hunters, then after Frodo’s wounding every moment had counted in getting the injured hobbit to Elrond.  The last time he had seen them enjoying themselves was that night on Weathertop, when he had sung the Lay of Lúthien to them.  Then the Nazgûl had risen from the tumbled stones and shadows…

Pippin wiggled up into a sitting position to join the conversation, though he retained possession of Frodo’s hand in both of his, stroking it continuously.  After the two younger hobbits had reported on their tour, the talk switched to recalling days long past and the telling of stories.  Several times, one would start to direct a remark to Frodo, and a little silence would fall before another would continue, stumbling and choking over his words.

So the knock on the door was most welcome.  Sam answered it, scrubbing at his eyes with a shirtsleeve.  “Gandalf!” he said in surprise, stepping back a pace to allow several Elves to carry heavily laden trays into the room.

“Hullo, all,” greeted the wizard as he followed them in.  Samwise and Merry gathered around him, beaming up at him.  “I saw this lot going down the hallway staggering under the weight of several trays, and I said to myself, ‘that must be my friends’ luncheon.’  So I decided to come and help you eat it.”

“You lads will be lucky if he leaves you enough to sustain a mouse,” Bilbo declared from his chair.  “A hobbit’s appetite can scarcely equal a wizard’s, from what I’ve seen.  Isn’t that true, Dúnadan?”

“I decline to comment, Bilbo,” returned the Ranger diplomatically.  He rose and offered his chair to Gandalf.  The wizard took it gratefully, leaning his staff against the carved headboard of Frodo's bed.  The kitchen staff placed the trays on the side table and bowed, taking their leave to the soft murmur of the younger hobbits' thanks.

“Very wise of you, Aragorn,” teased Gandalf.  “I am pleased to see that age has taught one of my old friends some sense.”  He leaned forward and laid his gnarled hand on Frodo’s forehead, stroking back the sweat-limp hair with great tenderness.  “And how is our patient today?”

“No change, except that his fever’s getting worse,” said Merry, helping Sam distribute the trays.  He placed Pippin’s across the tweenager’s lap and poured him a mug of milk, then moved on to hand a tray to Aragorn.

The Ranger shook his head.  “Unlike hobbits – and wizards, evidently - Men do not eat six meals a day.  Give my tray to Gandalf, Merry.” 

“Chicken!” crowed Pippin.  “Stuffed with mushrooms!”  Those were the last remarks made as the hobbits ate, paying respectful attention to their food.   With the exception of Bilbo, they ate as if they had not seen food in many days.  While the others dined, Aragorn rose and gently displaced Pippin, picking him up (tray and all) and depositing him onto one of the small settees.  Pippin drew up his knees and balanced the tray upon them, watching the Ranger anxiously.  Aragorn edged past Bilbo’s chair and sank down on the bed, easing himself up to support his back against the headboard.  Carefully he gathered the unconscious hobbit into his arms and lifted Frodo to cradle him before him, settling him into a reclining position in his arms.

“Sam, would you -” he began, but found the hobbit already at his side, the covered pot of steaming soup wrapped in a cloth to protect his hands.  “Oh, thank you.”  Pippin pulled the blanket up and made sure Frodo’s shoulders were covered.  Merry tucked a napkin beneath Frodo’s chin then handed Aragorn a spoon.  It was then that the man realized that he was surrounded by hobbits, four pairs of eyes gazing at him intently. 

Sam waited by his side and Merry and Pippin stood across the bed from them.  Bilbo retained his chair but his eyes were on Frodo’s slack face.  Their unfinished trays lay abandoned, all thoughts of food forgotten.  Gandalf too was watching him, putting aside his meal and wiping his fingers with his napkin.  Feeling oddly nervous by their regard, Aragorn dipped the spoon into the broth, waited a moment to let it cool, and carefully ladled it into Frodo’s mouth, tilting the hobbit’s body slightly to ensure it ran down his throat and not the windpipe.  Frodo’s head lolled against his shoulder and his hair smelled of the sweet herbal soap the Elves had washed him with.

“That’s it, Frodo-lad,” murmured Bilbo, leaning over to stretch out an arm and catch up a corner ofthe napkin to collect a stray drop.  “That’s my good lad.  A little more, now…”  Aragorn fed the unconscious hobbit to the whispered encouragement of his old cousin, Bilbo’s voice rising and falling almost in a chant.  A hand gently stroking down the hobbit’s throat encouraged the swallowing reflex.  When the little pot was almost empty, the man looked up from his work to see Pippin leaning against Merry, both half-asleep on their feet.

They are still exhausted, Aragorn thought.  It will be many days before they recover their strength and their energy.  Sam, too, was visibly drooping, lulled by the sun streaming in the windows and Bilbo's soft song.  “Why don’t you place the trays outside the door,” he suggested to them, amused to see Pippin jerk into wakefulness.  Merry rubbed his eyes.  Sam blinked and took the spoon and soup-pot from Aragorn, setting them on one of the trays.  “Then you can all take a nap.”

“We don’t want to leave Frodo,” Merry stated around a yawn, turning to help Sam gather up the trays while Pippin located all the mugs.

“Use the divans, then, as you did the night before last,” suggested Gandalf.   Of all of them, the wizard was the only one to see Aragorn settle Frodo back into the pillows then seize the opportunity to run his hand along the hobbit’s left arm.  Gandalf met his eyes and Aragorn shook his head. 

“I am too old to dangle off a settee,” Bilbo stated with a grimace.  “See you at tea, lads.  There should be more blankets in that press over there.”  The old hobbit rose stiffly, the movement obviously painful.  He steadied himself with a hand on the edge of Frodo’s bed.  “Ah, sat too long that time, I’m afraid.”  Sam left off putting the trays outside to assist him, but Gandalf was there first, supporting the elderly hobbit with a hand under his elbow. 

“Elrond should be coming to check on our Frodo soon,” Gandalf remarked.  “Bilbo, let me walk with you to your room.  I wanted to ask you about…”  The wizard’s voice trailed off into the distance as the door closed after them.

After putting the last of the dishes out, Sam closed the door and Pippin pushed a blanket into his hands.  Pippin handed one to Merry and Aragorn and kept one for himself.  Then he stood by Frodo’s bed again, eyes on his cousin’s still face.  Sweat beaded along Frodo’s forehead, glistened on his skin.  Pippin stroked his cousin’s dark hair, then turned to the Ranger.  “May I sleep with Frodo, please?” Pippin asked.

Aragorn sorrowed over the need to refuse this request.  “No, Pippin.  I am sorry, but you might shift in your sleep and cause him pain.”

Pippin shook his bronze curls, but Merry supported Aragorn. “You would too, Pip.  You kicked me a dozen times last night.”

“I won’t.  I promise I won’t.  Please, Aragorn … I want to be near him.  I won’t even fall asleep.”  It was incredibly difficult to deny this young hobbit anything, the Ranger thought.  Those sorrowful eyes made him feel quite unreasonably guilty for refusing.

Aragorn had his doubts that Pippin could stay awake, but perhaps his nearness would ease Frodo in that dark place the wounded hobbit had retreated to.  “All right, Pippin, but again, you must be very careful.”  He returned the tweenager to his cousin’s right side and watched as Pippin turned over on his side and nestled against Frodo, cautiously sliding an arm over his chest. 

Aragorn could not stretch out on the small sofas as could the hobbits, but Bilbo’s chair near Frodo’s head would do.  He wondered if the halflings realized that Frodo had not for a moment been left alone without a trained healer by his side.  Or, a darker part of his mind amended, one with the strength of will to do what must be done if the hobbit suddenly succumbed with the shard still in his body.  He doubted that any of the hobbits had noted the knife at his belt, or that Elrohir also wore one.

He would wait until the halflings slept soundly then conduct a more thorough examination than he wanted to perform under their anxious eyes.  He, like Merry, had felt the increased fever in Frodo’s slight form.  Unlike the young hobbit, he knew exactly what prolonged, high fever could do to a body, especially one already weakened by pain and blood loss and poison.

It was difficult not to fall asleep himself, which made him aware of how weary he still was.  His limbs felt leaden, legs and knees aching still.  Sam was already snoring softly, stretched out on his back with both arms under his head, accumulated fatigue catching up with him at last.  Merry turned restlessly on the small divan but was finally still, his arm thrown over his eyes.  Aragorn inspected his boots carefully for clinging dirt and then placed them gingerly on the fine coverlet, sighing with relief at being able to stretch out his long legs.  He draped the blanket over his knees then leaned back to wait for Pippin to fall asleep.  He must have dozed off himself for the next thing he was aware of was Pippin’s shrill voice shrieking, “Strider!  Strider!  Frodo’s not breathing!”

* TBC *

Chapter Nine

Aragorn shot to his feet, sleep-mazed, but years of perilous living brought him to abrupt, instant alertness.  The blanket he had laid over his knees treacherously tangled around his legs and his leap towards Frodo’s bed sent him crashing to the floor, the back of his head impacting the polished wood with excruciating force.  Stunned, the Ranger rolled over and tried to drag himself to his feet, knotting his hands in the bedcovers to pull himself up.  Peripherally he was aware that Sam and Merry were struggling to their feet.  Pippin continued shrieking, wordless now but desperate.

Aragorn got up on his knees and managed to drag himself up and over Pippin, bodily pushing the hysterical tweenager aside.  Pippin stilled his screams, sliding up against the headboard, twisting agilely to catch the carved frame with both hands to remain on the bed.  His head spinning and gaze blurring from the blow, the Ranger dragged himself to Frodo and put a hand over the hobbit’s mouth, praying to feel a rush of warm air.

Nothing.  He felt nothing.  There was no rise of the bandaged chest.  Frodo wasn’t breathing.

“How long?” Aragorn shouted at Pippin.  “Pippin!  How long since he stopped breathing?”

The tweenager stared at him, tears streaming down his sharp face.  With a visible effort, he gulped and forced control on himself.  “Not – not long!  Just a moment ago!  I called to you the moment it happened!”

Merry and Sam had untangled themselves and Aragorn felt the bed quiver as they rushed to the left side and stared over it at the unconscious hobbit.  Frodo’s face held no color at all and his lips were blue.  The man registered that he no longer was sweating heavily; perspiration glimmered on his skin but it was drying rapidly.  Elrond’s grim instructions echoed in his ears and his thoughts flew to the knife at his belt.  Could he bring himself to do this thing?  “He must not die with that evil thing in him,” the Master of Rivendell had ordered.  “That cannot be allowed.  If he succumbs and we cannot revive him, you must cut his throat before his heart stops beating.”

His knife was in his hand.  Aragorn did not remember drawing it.  Though his soul cringed from the act, he knew the consequences of forgoing this mercy.  He could not condemn Frodo to such a fate and never could he be responsible for loosing another wraith upon the world.  A wraith that would take the Ring to the Enemy.  They could not prevent it from doing so.  Middle-earth would be lost and darkness would roll over the world like a wave…  Forcing his mind almost blank, he raised the knife.

Sam wailed, a sound that Aragorn would not have believed could come from a hobbit’s throat.  It was hoarse and primal, the sound of grief beyond words.  It diverted him from what he had been about to do.  Before he could act, Pippin threw himself over Frodo’s still form, acting as a shield, locking his arms around Frodo’s chest and burying his head into his kin’s throat.  The tweenager’s body effectively sheltered his cousin; Aragorn could not strike without killing Pippin, too.  In a flash, Merry seized upon his distraction to latch onto Aragorn’s arm, trying to drag him sideways. The young hobbit’s action struck the last of the indecision from the Ranger’s mind.  In one fluid movement he shook off Merry, sheathed the knife and reaching down, pulled Pippin up and thrust him into Merry’s arms.  Then he pulled the dying hobbit up with one hand and with the other, struck him brutally across the face.

Sam cried out again, and this time Merry and Pippin both echoed his scream.  Frodo’s head snapped back on his neck and then fell forward, throwing his dark hair into his face.  Aragorn raised his hand for another blow, but three small bodies launched themselves across the bed and into him, knocking him back and away from Frodo.  Shrieking incoherently in their rage, their combined weight drove him to the floor as small fists pummeled him mercilessly and hairy feet kicked at him.

“Stop this!”  Elrond’s voice, battle-trained and resolute, cut through the hobbits’ furious screams like a hot knife through butter.  The combatants froze; Sam, Merry and Pippin still pinning Aragorn to the floor.  Sam and Merry each had an arm and Pippin had wrapped himself around Aragorn’s knees, holding on with every ounce of strength in him.  The Master of Rivendell took in this tableau in a glance, then he was striding past them, his heavy robes trailing behind.  Long hands sought Frodo’s face, his chest, then the Elf-lord was leaning down, his back hiding the unconscious hobbit from those watching.

Merry and Sam rolled off Aragorn, leaving the man breathless and stunned by the fierce attack.  The two hobbits stumbled to their feet and rushed to the Elf-lord’s side.  Pippin remained locked around Aragorn’s knees, his eyes squinched shut and silent tears continuing to pour down his cheeks.  Aragorn got his elbows under him and pushed himself into a seated position, then reached down and carefully stroked the young hobbit’s face.  “Pippin,” he whispered, “it is all right now.  Elrond’s here.  Pippin, you can let go.”

Pippin gave no sign of hearing him.  His grip remained taut around the Ranger’s knees with such force that Aragorn feared he would injure the tweenager if he tried to remove him.  Then there was movement at his side and the scent of roses and lavender, and Arwen was kneeling at his side, murmuring to Pippin in Elvish.  The hobbit resisted for a moment, then relaxed suddenly and Arwen pulled him close to cradle him against her bosom.

Aragorn steadied himself with a hand on her shoulder and she spared him a glance, sorrow and fear in her shining eyes.  Pippin sobbed against her and the Ranger rubbed his back for a moment, then gathered his courage and rose to join Elrond and the adult hobbits at Frodo’s bedside.  Dreading what he might see, he looked first into his foster father’s face.  The Elf-lord’s features were composed and controlled, but in his dark eyes were compassion and regret.

With his view no longer blocked, Aragorn could see that Frodo’s chest rose and fell in a regular, if slow, rhythm.  Elrond pushed the hair out the pale face and looked at his foster son.  “You struck him to shock him into breathing?”

The Ranger nodded, hardly daring to believe that his desperate blow had worked.  “His breathing failed while we slept.  Had not Pippin been watching and alerted me…”

“Ah,” murmured Elrond.  He glanced behind him to where Arwen sat gracefully on the floor, holding Pippin close and rocking him slowly to and fro.  Pippin continued to sob, eyes still shut, overcome at last by the terror and stresses he had buried for the last fortnight.  His gaze traveled to Sam and Merry, who were watching him tensely.  Merry’s face was white and set, tearless and strained, but it was Sam’s expression that grieved the Elf-lord’s heart.  The hobbit looked as if it was his own death that had almost come and that he would have preferred it be so.  He wept as freely as Pippin but seemed entirely unaware of the stream of tears that flowed over the rounded mounds of his cheeks.

“You did well,” Elrond said softly.  Carefully he felt along the sides of Frodo’s neck, then turned the dark head side to side, testing for injuryThe pale cheekwas already darkening into a bruise.  Bright spots of red were appearing on the linen bandage over the hobbit’s left shoulder and the elven healer’s long fingertips touched them lightly.  “The wound has reopened slightly but that is a small price to pay.  Had you not acted so quickly, my son, we would have lost him.”  Elrond raised those ageless eyes and in them Aragorn saw knowledge of the choice he had faced.  His hand slid to his sheathed knife and he knew that Elrond saw that, too.

“You did well,” Elrond repeated.  Frodo sighed and as one, they all leaned anxiously over him.  His heavy eyelashes fluttered, then relaxed and his face settled back into quiet.

Sam tore his gaze from Frodo and stared at his clenched hands, then forced them up to meet the Ranger’s.  “I’m sorry, sir,” the stocky hobbit said quietly.  “I didn’t know what you were doing.  First there was a knife in your hand, and then…then I jus’ saw you hit him.  I thought … I thought…” Sam trailed off, swallowing audibly as red flooded his cheeks,  “I didn't understand.  I’m sorry.”

“Think nothing of it, Sam,” Aragorn responded.  “I am grateful that you are so quick to defend your master.”  He smiled at the flustered hobbit and rolled a shoulder tentatively.  “Done some wrestling, have you?”

Sam’s flush deepened.  “Yes, sir.  That I have.  Sorry, sir.”  He scrubbed at his face, rubbing off the tears that dripped down his cheeks.

Aragorn shook his head but his reply was forestalled by Merry.  “I also owe you an apology, Aragorn.”  Meriadoc stood very straight, and in his bearing Aragorn could see the future Master of Buckland.  “I too misinterpreted your actions, and … and I am sorry.”

Aragorn smiled at the hobbit, though he was beginning to feel a well-placed kick that he suspected was Merry’s work.  “Apology accepted,” he returned quietly, returning the hobbit’s formal half-bow.  Arwen joined them then, with Pippin at her side.  The young hobbit’s face was blotched from weeping and he was visibly trembling but he was no longer hysterical.  Merry held out his arms and Pippin gently detached himself from Arwen and rushed into them, hugging his cousin tightly.  Merry smiled over his head at Arwen and she returned it, her eyes echoing the smile.

Elrond had been carefully peeling back the bandage and wiping away the leaking droplets.  The thin brown crust over the wound was beaded with bubbling globules of scarlet and the pale flesh around it was terrifyingly cold.  Frodo’s face tightened at the Elf-lord’s ministrations, one of the few indications of pain he had evidenced.  Sam leaned forward and raised himself up on his toes, his hands braced against the edge of high bed.  “Mr. Frodo?” he whispered.  “Master, can you hear me?”

Almost it seemed that Frodo did.  His expressive brows quirked and a small line appeared on his forehead.  But the encouraging sign was brief.  His face relaxed and he was gone from them again.  Sam sighed and closed his eyes, hearing his master’s cousins echo his exhalation mournfully.

Elrond affixed a fresh bandage and pulled the covers up to keep the wounded hobbit warm.  “He needs to rest now, little masters.  It would be better if you were to retire to your own rooms and let Aragorn and myself keep watch over him.  Daughter, will you walk with the hobbits to their rooms?”

“No!” said Pippin, then blushed when the Elf-lord’s somber gaze regarded him.  “I mean … I mean, we don’t want to leave him.”

“Nevertheless, young hobbit,” Elrond replied in such tones that they dared not disobey him, “it would be for Frodo’s good that you leave for a little while.  You also, Master Samwise.  Return when it is time for tea, if you will.”

Sam looked rebellious, but Merry nodded.  “Yes, my lord.  At tea time.”  With one hand tight on Pippin’s arm, he nudged Sam towards the door.  Arwen glanced back and met Aragorn’s eyes before following them out, and the Ranger felt his heart trail after her graceful form.

Elrond tilted his head, evidently tracking the sound of retreating footsteps down the hallway.  When he judged them out of easy hearing-distance, he turned to the Ranger, who had been waiting for his attention.  “You have examined him?”

Aragorn shook his head.  “I have not had the chance to conduct more than a cursory examination.  I was waiting for them all to fall asleep … and fell asleep myself, I fear.  It is most fortunate that young Pippin stayed awake to keep watch over his cousin.”  The man smiled, a hint of laughter in his blue-grey eyes.  “That youngster promised he wouldn’t fall asleep, but I did not believe him.”

An answering hint of laughter sparked in Elrond’s eyes as he bent over Frodo again.  As Aragorn watched, it faded as the Elf-lord’s gentle hands moved over the hobbit.  “He is weaker,” Elrond murmured.  “You have saved his life for the present but it cost him strength.  I fear -” Elrond broke off and raised his head.  Concentrating, Aragorn could just hear the quick boot-falls hurrying towards the room.  They both turned as Gandalf burst through the door.

“Is he all right?  How is he?”  The wizard almost ran over to the bedside, his lined face blanched with fear. 

“He lives,” Elrond reassured his old friend.  “Most remarkable creatures, these halflings.”

Gandalf sighed and ran his hand through his bristling beard, then dropped into the chair at Frodo’s head.  “I saw Arwen in the corridor.  She said -”

“He is very weak, Mithrandir,” Elrond interrupted uncharacteristically, his face bleak.  “I fear he will die before the sun rises.”

Aragorn saw anguish in the wizard’s eyes, before Gandalf clamped down on it and shuttled away his grief.  His hands tightened on the staff then relaxed deliberately.  “Elrond,” the wizard whispered, “I drove him to do this.  To take the Ring and run.  Had I trusted myself, I could have taken it and never exposed him to this.  He offered it to me freely.”  The wizard closed his eyes.  “He said to me, ‘I am not made for perilous quests...’   I did this to him, Elrond.”

“You did not drive that Morgul-blade into his body, Mithrandir,” Elrond replied, a storm gathering on the high brow.  “You did not hunt him and chase him and drive him before you without rest –“

“But I caused it to be done.” Gandalf’s eyes snapped open, and Aragorn was appalled at the rage and regret that burned there.  “I was careful not to tell him too much, for fear that his courage would fail.  I mentioned only briefly the Ringwraiths, and did not truly explain what they were.  What they could do.  I feared that his courage would fail, when his has been the only one that has not –“

“Gentlemen,” Aragorn intervened, fearful of their rising voices distressing Frodo.  “This accomplishes nothing.”  Both paused as if remembering where they were, then Gandalf sighed and leaned back in the chair.  Elrond seated himself at Frodo’s bedside and laid a gentle hand on the hobbit’s chest, feeling the shallow draw and flow of breath.  When neither spoke, Aragorn persisted, “Father, you have studied the lore of the Enemy’s Ring for centuries.  As have you, Gandalf.  After the traitor Saruman, you are the most knowledgeable of its history and properties.  Is there nothing that can be done?”

There was a long silence in that quiet room.  Then softly, Elrond said, “He must wear it.”

“No!” exploded Gandalf, so loudly that Elrond winced.  “I will not permit it!  He has resisted its lure for seventeen years – you will not place it against his flesh!  To wear it day and night, touching him constantly – never apart from him – no!  You might as well tear out his soul and hand it to the Dark Lord now –“

“If we do not,” Elrond rode over the wizard, “then he will die!  This night!  The Ring will tighten its hold upon him, yes, but it will lend him strength enough to survive the night, until we can make another attempt to locate the shard and rid him of it.”

“And bind him to itself!  Its foul touch would drag him into darkness!”

“But slowly,” Elrond murmured.  “We have all seen the hobbit’s strength.  I think it would labor long before it could corrupt Master Baggins.  And in the meantime, it would preserve his life.”  He turned to Aragorn, who had watched silently.  “Estel, go you to my study and bring me the silver chain you will find in the top left drawer of my desk.”  Aragorn bowed and complied, keeping silent his own misgivings.

“A chain,” Gandalf groaned bitterly.  “How appropriate.  You do know that once he bears it against him, he will grow to need its touch?”

The Elf-lord nodded sorrowfully.  “Yes.  But it will take time to ensnare his soul.  I seek only to keep him alive.  When he is well enough to attend it, my Council will decide what is to be done with the Ring.  It will hurt him to give it up, but he will be strong enough to pass it into the chosen guardian’s hands.”

Gandalf shook his head but did not argue further.  The Master of Rivendell and the wizard sat in the quiet room and pondered their fears and hopes, and outside the clear waterfalls made music to rival the singing birds.  Aragorn returned quickly and in his calloused hands dangled a necklace, a chain of linked silver that glittered in the late afternoon sun.

While Gandalf supported Frodo with one hand and held aside his dark hair with the other, Elrond carefully folded another bandage and used it to reach under the hobbit’s pillow and extract the Ring.  Trying to look at it as little as possible and never touching it, the Elf-lord strung the silver chain through it and very carefully, fastened the chain around Frodo’s throat then lay him back on the pillows.  Though no hand touched it, the Ring quivered for a moment against the pale chest, then stilled.

“Oh, Frodo,” whispered Gandalf brokenly.  “Forgive me.  Forgive me.”

* TBC *

Chapter Ten

“For what?  Gandalf, forgive you for what?”  None of them had heard the old hobbit’s approach, so involved had they been in their task.  When neither the wizard nor the Elf-lord replied, Bilbo stepped further into the room, his lined face whitening.  “Gandalf, what have you done?”

Another time, another place, the Master of Imladris would have smiled to see his old friend jerk under the lash of the hobbit’s strident voice.  Leaning forward in his chair, Gandalf hastily pulled up the blanket over Frodo, hiding the Ring from Bilbo’s sight.  “Bilbo,” the wizard said softly, “please … please understand that we seek only to save him –“

“What is it?  What have you done to my boy?”  In all the long years of their friendship, rarely had Elrond seen Bilbo angry and never had he seen the hobbit enraged.  But fury burned in Bilbo’s eyes now, fires lit from fear and desperate love.  “What have you done?” 

“Bilbo -" Elrond began gently but with surprising quickness, the elderly halfling moved past him and the healer saw his bright brown eyes fasten on the silver chain that glinted around Frodo’s throat above the blanket.  Bilbo frowned in puzzlement, then his face tightened as he understood.  His features rigid, Bilbo slowly raised his head and fastened burning eyes upon them.  At that moment, the Lord of Imladris, powerful wizard and Dúnedain Ranger were very grateful that the old hobbit’s sword was not at hand.

“You put it on him?  After everything you’ve told me?”  Bilbo inhaled deeply and his hands twitched, as if he would like to snatch the silver chain from his beloved nephew’s throat.  Or perhaps fasten them around certain Big Peoples’ necks.  “How could you do this?  How could you?”

“To save his life.”  Elrond did not raise his voice, but he infused his words with all of the authority that millennia of warring against the tide of darkness could lend him.  “Understand, Bilbo, that otherwise Frodo would not survive the night.”  Elrond waited for his old friend to absorb this, and nodded to himself as he saw acceptance dawned reluctantly in Bilbo’s eyes.  Painful as that acceptance was, he knew the hobbit would not turn from it.  Tears prickling in Bilbo’s eyes, the old hobbit slowly extended a trembling hand to stroke Frodo’s still face.  Then he leaned closer and peered at the darkening shadow there. 

Bilbo’s greying brows drew together upon seeing the bruise and he inhaled again, hands clenching the side of the mattress.  “Which one of you struck him?”

With slow, deliberate movements, Elrond selected the topmost cloth from the pile folded neatly on the bedside table and dipped it into the basin of warm water that sat next to it, laying the cloth over the darkening bruise on Frodo’s cheek.  He pressed the warm cloth against the cold flesh for a moment, then returned it to the water to wring it out and reapply it. 

“I had to, my friend,” Aragorn said, speaking for the first time.  “He had stopped breathing.  Striking him forced him to inhale, to return air to his lungs.”  Now the old hobbit looked at the Ranger, and they watched as anger gave way to sorrow, to resignation, then something like amusement sparked in those bright eyes.

“And what happened to you?”

Aragorn relaxed as Bilbo’s tense stance eased.  He raised a hand and gingerly touched his own face, where by the feel of it, bruises were beginning to blossom.  “Your cousins and Sam attacked me.”

“Good lads!” Bilbo snorted.  Calmer now, he raised a hand to stroke Frodo’s forehead.  “If you say there is no other way, Elrond, then I must believe you.  And I have known you, old friend,” he said to Gandalf, “long enough to realize that you love this boy no less than I.  There is nothing to forgive between us.”  The old hobbit took a deep breath.  “And I will not allow you to castigate yourself for doing what you must do to save his life.”  After a moment Gandalf nodded, a quick dip and jerk of his head.  Bilbo turned back to the motionless form.  “How is he?”

Again Elrond gently applied the compress.  “The fever still burns in him, as you feel.  He has not stirred.  But he will not die this night.  The power of the Ring will preserve him.”

“It strengthens his body while it weakens his spirit.”  Bilbo heard the bitterness in the wizard’s voice and glanced at Gandalf in surprise. 

A soft knock at the open door drew their attention.  Merry lowered his hand, Pippin and Sam clustering hesitantly behind him.  Elrond noted that the youngest one had his fingers clenched in the fabric of his older cousin’s waistcoat again, a sure sign of his unease and fear.  But they had slept, Elrond thought, and would be the better for it.  Indeed, the imprint of sharp pillow-folds still creased young Peregrin's face where evidence of a hasty wash did not soften them.  Merry was looking between Bilbo and Elrond anxiously, catching the lingering tension.  But Sam’s eyes were all for Frodo.  Elrond swept back his robes and rose, holding out the cloth.  Sam took his place gratefully, leaning against the bed as his reach would be too short from the chair.  He dipped the compress into the warm water and applied it carefully to his master’s face.

“Hullo,” said Merry softly, coming to stand at the head of Frodo’s bed.  Pippin followed like a shadow.  “It’s almost tea-time.”   Bright blue eyes looked at them measuringly, trying to ascertain what had occurred between them.  “I asked the kitchens for trays.  Is everything all right here?”

Bilbo laughed shortly, a pained sound with no mirth in it.  Gandalf glanced at him once then resumed staring at the floor, his staff clutched tight in his hands.  Pippin looked at them with huge eyes then edged even closer to Merry, near treading on his cousin’s heels.  Seeing this, Bilbo relented and placed a hand on the tweenager’s arm, squeezing it gently.  “Things are as well as we can expect them to be,” he said, answering Merry’s question. “We were just discussing Frodo-lad’s treatment.”  He turned away to take Elrond’s empty chair, hiding his face from them for a moment.

“Um-hum,” replied Merry, eyeing his elderly cousin’s back speculatively.

“What’s this?” 

Aragorn’s hand shot out and caught Sam’s just before the halfling could lift the chain from Frodo’s throat and reveal its burden.  Sam looked up at him, startled.  “It is the Ring,” the Ranger said softly, regretfully.  Pippin gasped.  Merry’s eyes narrowed as his face whitened.  But it was Samwise that Elrond was watching.  Sam’s grey eyes filled with tears and he gulped, broad shoulders slumping.  Then with a visible effort of will, he straightened and determinedly wrung out the compress and laid it against Frodo’s cheek, warming and comforting his unconscious master.

“He won’t want to take it off, will he?”  Elrond’s clear gaze returned to Merry, to find Bilbo’s young cousin looking back at him.  Increasingly he was impressed by that youngling’s quicksilver mind.

Knowing his words would be remembered and considered, Elrond paused a moment before replying.  “No, he will not.  But Frodo’s part in this is finished.  He bore the Ring here through blood and pain, and kept it from his pursuers when many a strong warrior of Men or Elves would have failed.”  He paused to look into Frodo’s face, white and wan.  “Wearing the Ring against his flesh will strengthen his body, for a time.  Until the shard of the evil blade within him is removed.  Then we will ask no more of him.”

“Good.  He don’t deserve this.  He don’t deserve any of this.”  Sam flushed when all eyes turned to him, but he did not retract his words or apologize for them.  He glared furiously at the cloth in his hands as if it somehow offended him but laid it ever so gently against the bruise on Frodo’s face.

Whatever response Elrond might have had to that was forestalled by the arrival of tea.  Pippin jumped to help, relief at having a task to do evident in his jerking motions as he reached up to take a tray from a somber Elf.   Then he stood forlornly, unsure of whom to serve first.  Merry directed him to Bilbo with a jerk of his head, while offering another tray to Gandalf with a bow.  Elrond and Aragorn waved away the servers’ attentions, but Elrond directed his Elf to place the small pot of broth for Frodo upon the side table.  Sam never looked up from his task.  Elrond dismissed his serving staff and then took advantage of the arrival of the food to further examine Frodo.  As yet unnoticeable to mortal sight, Frodo’s color looked better.  Then a frown crossed the Elf-lord’s high brow.  Using more than his eyes, he examined the unconscious hobbit.  Feeling the wizard’s gaze upon him, Elrond looked up and returned that sharp regard, saw Gandalf nod slightly.  He had seen it, too.  What mortal eyes or an unstudied glance might take for simple paleness was just the slightest hint of transparency. The fading had begun.  So quickly, so quickly, the Ring was taking hold.  Taking while it gave.  They might have less time than he had thought. 

“Ah, fresh blackberries,” murmured Bilbo with forced heartiness.  “Scones … crumpets with butter and jam.   And cucumber sandwiches and two kinds of cake!  Excellent, excellent.  Frodo, my lad, if you get better quickly, we might save some for you.”  Everyone in the room stilled in surprise when Frodo’s head turned towards Bilbo slightly, as if in response to his uncle’s words.  Bilbo thumped his tray down on the bedside table with a rattle and pulled himself to his feet.  “Lad?” the old hobbit murmured.  “Dear boy, do you hear me?”

Frodo’s eyes rolled beneath their lids and his lips pursed slightly.  Bilbo inhaled sharply and leaned over him.  “Frodo?  Frodo?”  Elrond too leaned forward, his dark eyes intent on the wounded hobbit’s face.  Mindful of the need to keep the hobbit still, he almost silenced Bilbo but did not, for Frodo was obviously struggling to respond.  Such a valiant spirit!  The healer remained silent, watching, choosing the honor the wounded halfling’s attempt.  Slowly, with great effort, the blue-veined eyelids dragged themselves open and blinked.  His right hand twitched and Bilbo caught it up in his own, chaffing the fingers briskly.  “Frodo-lad?  Can you speak to me, my boy?”

Light.  White light.  Glaring, painful to his eyes.  Shadows and movement.  Voices?  Someone calling his name.   A treasured voice, loved and long missed.  He struggled to place that dear voice but others distracted him.

“Frodo?” whispered Merry.  “Frodo?  Frodo?”  Pippin echoed him, rushing forward to try to slip between his cousins and the Big People to peer into Frodo’s face.  He jostled Merry but his cousin seemed rooted to the floor.  Sam stood, incredulous joy on his face, the cloth dripping unheeded onto the floor.  Pippin could not wiggle between them.  Frustrated and frantic, he rounded the foot of the bed and skidded to a stop opposite Sam, catching himself by winding his hands in Frodo’s blanket.  Unmindful of Elrond’s hiss of warning, he pulled himself up and stared hopefully into his cousin’s face.

Gandalf too was on his feet, his bearded face reflecting both fear and joy.  He looked quickly to the Elf-lord as Elrond leaned over Merry’s head and laid his hand on Frodo’s forehead.  The morning glory eyes fluttered and strained to look up at him.  Aragorn also moved closer, his lean face intent.  “Frodo,” whispered Elrond, “Frodo Baggins.”  His patient stared up at him, confusion and pain chasing across the pale features.  Elrond realized that he stood with his back to the setting sun and the light streaming in the balcony doors would be blinding to the injured hobbit.  Frodo would be unlikely to see much beyond their color-leached forms.  He certainly would have no understanding of where he was.

Frodo blinked, his vision tearing from the onslaught of light.  The light seemed to condense into a thick fog that gathered behind his eyes and wrapped him layers of suffocating cotton.  He was aware only of light and fear and pain.  His whole body hurt, ached, but the worst was the cold of his left shoulder and side.  Someone had pressed him into a great block of ice, and it was burning him.  He tried to shift away from the ice but his body did not respond, other than to send fiery knife-slashes of pain through his abused muscles.

Frodo screamed but nothing emerged from his throat but a breathy sigh, barely audible.  The cloudy figures moved closer, looming over him.  Some were larger, some smaller.  One of them was speaking.  “Ho la!  You there, you dunghill rat!  Stop your squeaking, or I’ll deal with you.  D’you hear?”   No, no!  Their whips … no!  Frodo tried to struggle, to escape, but he was naked and there was no place to hide from those who held him captive.  Where was Sam?  Then with overwhelming shock, he realized that they hadtaken it.  He could not feel the chain around his neck.  They had taken it!

Elrond saw the injured hobbit’s eyes widen then confusion flash into terror.  Frodo began to struggle, too feeble to do more than thrash weakly.  Worried, Elrond laid a comforting hand on the hobbit’s brow, only to see the blue eyes clench shut and the small body tremble with fear.  “We are frightening him,” he said in a soft but ringing voice to the others.  Pippin tore his eyes from Frodo’s face, not understanding.

Aragorn did.  Reaching past Gandalf, he placed a hand each on Merry and Sam’s shoulders.  “Step back,” he told them quietly.  “He does not know us.  He is lost in a dark dream.  Move back, and give him some room.”

“Ah, Frodo,” murmured the Elf-lord, making his voice soft and comforting.  “You are safe in Imladris.  Frodo, do not fear.  Peace, little one.”  The blue eyes focused on him but the hobbit’s terror did not abate.  Frodo gasped, the combination of panic and pain driving him towards hysteria.  Elrond’s heart was wrung with pity.  “Tolo dan na ngalad,” the Elf-lord whispered.  “Shush, shush.  Peace, little one, peace…” 

He had to escape.  Find Sam, find it, and leave this vile place.  They had come so far – he could not fail now…   Frodo tried to sit up, pushing himself up with his right arm as his left was unaccountably lifeless.  Pain ripped through him, slashing like fire, and this time he did cry out.  Elrond darted forward, one hand going to support the hobbit’s head while the other held him down. 

Frodo tried to tear himself away from the restraining hands, throwing himself to the left.  The pain was so sudden, so intense, that he could not even scream.  His entire body convulsing, the hobbit spasmed completely off the bed and fell back on it limp.

“Frodo!” shrieked Pippin.

“Estel!”  Aragorn leaped forward in response to Elrond’s summons, pushing the hobbits aside, sending Bilbo stumbling into Merry.  Both Merry and Sam caught him, the three of them falling back.  The Ranger’s hands were on Frodo’s chest while Elrond’s swift, slender hands examined his face, careful thumbs pushing open the slack lids to look deeply into the rolled-back eyes.  Pippin began to weep, both hands across his mouth as he fought to stifle his sobs.  Elrond’s face was intent, remote, as one hand moved to the pulse-point under Frodo’s jaw.  The other traveled to rest over Frodo’s heart.  Aragorn’s hands remained on Frodo’s chest, monitoring the shallow draw and flow of breath.  

After several long moments, the healer straightened.  He sighed deeply, weariness and relief in the set of his shoulders.  Aragorn too drew back, wiping the perspiration from his forehead with a shaking hand.  Bilbo gently shook himself free from Merry and Sam, grimacing at their unintentional clamping of his arms, and joined his old friend at Frodo’s bedside.  “Elrond?” the old hobbit whispered.

“It is all right,” murmured Elrond.  “Let him sleep.  He will not remember wakening.  This is no more than a dream to him.  It is better so, until the shard is got out of him.”

“And when will that be, sir?” asked Merry.  His courteous tone belied the intensity of his question but Elrond recognized the hobbit’s increasing desperation, held rigidly in check.

The Elf-lord’s gaze traveled to the early dusk that was settling outside the balcony windows, then to Frodo’s still face.  The westering sun threw glittering reflections in the mists from the waterfalls, diamond sparkles that burned like Mithrandir's fireworks before they were overcome by the creeping shadows.  When would the fading become visible to these little ones?  And would they know what it portended?  “Tomorrow,” he replied softly.  “It must be tomorrow, whether he is strong enough or not.  There is no more time.”

* TBC * 

Chapter Eleven

Elrond wished that he had chosen more gentle words, for his suggestion that the young halflings retire and rest after tea was politely but firmly declined.  Without ever saying so (but stated eloquently in the stiffness of Samwise’s shoulders and the set expression on Merry’s face) was the resolution that they would not leave Frodo again.  Not until their kin and friend’s fate was decided.  Gandalf and Aragorn extolled the virtues of the dinner table in the Hall without effect, and even Elrond’s invitation to the Hall of Fire would not sway them.

Bilbo, too, tried to persuade them.  “Lads, you must spend an evening in the Hall of Fire.  You can’t visit Imladris and not see the Hall of Fire!  You’ll hear tales and songs to tell your grandchildren about.”  He coughed depreciatingly and rocked slightly on his heels.  “Why, I myself have been known to sing a song or two there, on occasion.”

Merry shook his head, speaking for them all.  “Thank you, Bilbo.  But we’d rather not.  Not tonight.  Maybe another night.”  If Frodo lives, was the unspoken addendum.  Pippin made no response at all, other than to look anxiously between his elders, color from his bout of weeping still high in his face.

Elladan relieved his father after some little time, greeting the hobbits with fair words.  Elrond drew him off into a corner, Gandalf joining them.  Merry strained his ears but the chair he had taken was too far away, and they spoke softly and in Elvish, of which he knew only a few words from Bilbo and Frodo's stories and songs.  He caught Frodo’s name, and his and the others’ a few times, but the quick flow of Elvish defeated him.  He ground his teeth, frustrated.  Bilbo was staring at him disapprovingly.  Merry made an effort to look contrite, while desperately searching for a means to know what was being said.

Sam!  Sam knew some Elvish – Bilbo had taught him when he was just a lad, and Frodo had taught him more.  Merry stood up and stretched hugely, then sauntered casually over to where Sam had pulled up a seat by Frodo’s bedside and unobtrusively tugged on his arm.  Sam looked up, surprised, but the question died on his lips upon seeing Merry’s cocked eyebrows.  His eyes followed the jerk of Merry’s head to where the Big People stood.  Merry leaned over Sam, ostensibly to check on Frodo but really to whisper in Sam’s ear, “Elvish, Sam.  Can you understand what they’re saying?”

Sam looked offended.  “I’m not about ‘ta listen in on their private conversation, Mr. Merry!” he hissed behind a hand raised in pretense of a yawn.  “Shame on you!”  Nevertheless, after a moment Sam leaned back in his chair and risked a peek at the conference in the corner.  “Don’t reckon I know enough words anyway,” he added regretfully.  Merry squeezed his arm in reply and eyed the balcony doors, wondering if their words would drift to him if he went out for a sniff of air.  He might understand just a bit if he could hear better.  Then he saw Aragorn.  The Ranger was regarding his efforts with amusement, and raised an eyebrow as the hobbit’s gaze met his.  Merry flushed and left off trying to eavesdrop.  He gathered up the shreds of his dignity and drifted back to his chair, wearing his best ‘I don’t know what you find so amusing’ look.

Elrond returned with his son after some moments.  “Elladan will take up the watch, little masters.  If you will not go to your rest and dinner, at least send for trays and sleep here.  Tomorrow will be a trying day, and if you are to help, you must be ready.”  The hobbits nodded solemnly.  With a smile for them, Elladan seated himself in the chair next to Frodo’s head.  Elrond bent over the quiet form and laid his hand against Frodo’s brow.  So he stood for a long time, looking into Frodo’s face.  “The fever is reduced, my son.  Check him often to be sure that it does not rise again.  Keep him warm and continue to administer water, as much as he will take.  Send for me if there is need.”

“I will, Father.”  Merry thought that he could begin to tell a difference between the twins.  They looked alike, most certainly, but Elladan’s voice was a little softer than Elrohir’s, his mien more serious.  With a few more soft-voiced instructions to both he and Aragorn, the Master of Rivendell stopped before the door and turned to bid them farewell.

“Rest well, little masters.  Until…  Elladan!  Leave it!”

The young Elf started at his father’s tone, his hand halting its reach for the cloth that lay on the floor by the side of the bed.  Gandalf, too, swung around in surprise.  Elladan looked up in astonishment, silver eyes widening.  “I used that to shield myself from the touch of the Ring,” explained Elrond in a softer voice, unspoken apology in his voice at his peremptory tone.  “Let me take it, my son.”

Elladan nodded, sliding back into the chair.  Elrond retrieved the discarded fabric with two fingers and held it away his body as he turned to leave.  “I will order this burned.  Until tomorrow, my friends.”  Then he was gone, and suddenly the room seemed much more empty without the Elf-lord’s imposing presence. 

Frodo was growing restless, tossing his head and muttering incoherently now and then.  Bilbo tugged his chair closer and leaned over him to sing some soft, nonsense song, as one would sing to quiet a fretful child.  But even his beloved voice did not comfort and Bilbo abandoned the attempt, sitting with his unlit pipe in his hands and his eyes on his nephew’s face.  Merry vacated his chair and came to stand by Sam, closer to his elder cousins.  False strength, thought Merry, hating the glint of silver around Frodo’s throat.  However much he might understand the need, he had still not settled with himself the idea of that wicked thing ensnaring his cousin.  Frodo moaned, pushing off his blankets, only to shiver and clutch them close again.  He’s suffering, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, wept Merry in his heart.  He reached over his cousin and pulled the covers up over Frodo’s bare shoulders.  He’s lost so much weight, Merry thought, mourning the prominence of the collar-bones that seemed ready to poke through Frodo’s skin.  He rubbed Frodo’s right shoulder gently and his cousin’s face turned towards him, sweat beading his brow as he struggled in his dream-sleep to speak.  His eyelids fluttered and Merry’s hopes rose, but Frodo did not open his eyes again.  Merry could make no sense of his cousin’s mumbles.  Frodo’s right hand clenched and quivered but the left remained still and cold.  Merry caught up the twitching hand and chafed the trembling fingers gently.  If he lived, would he be crippled?  Would this wound always hurt him?  Merry could not bear the thought of his laughing, gentle cousin maimed and in pain. 

Gandalf had to call his name twice before Merry heard him.  The old wizard was looking at him sorrowfully and the hobbit realized that he had leaned forward against the bed, both hands holding tight to Frodo’s hand.  As if he could hold his cousin to life by the mere force of his will.  “Meriadoc,” Gandalf repeated for the third time, “will you four not change your minds and come to dinner?  I hear that the cooks have prepared something special for you.”  Merry shook his head, as did the others.  Bilbo never glanced up from Frodo’s face.  Gandalf’s bristling brows drew down and he said gently, “Frodo is safe with Elladan.  Do not fear for him in the next hours.  Hobbits must eat, my friends.”

“Thank you, Gandalf, but no.  We’re not leaving.”  Merry cast an apologetic look at Elladan to let him know that they trusted him, but their minds were made up.  “Lord Elrond said that maybe the sound of our voices will help Frodo.  Let him know that his kindred are near, at least.  You and Aragorn go.”    

* * * * *

Quiet and contemplative, Aragorn at last went alone to sup.  Gandalf excused himself on the need to consult some ancient books of lore in Elrond’s Library.  Elrond would bathe and rest, the Ranger knew, and prepare himself for the effort to come.  Aragorn had hoped that Arwen would join him but she sent her regrets, unable to spare the time from her work in housing the increasing number of guests arriving for Elrond’s Council.  The Dwarves were proving troublesome, dissatisfied with their accommodations, prickly and quick to take offense at imagined slights.  Resigned to dining alone, he was gladdened to see Glorfindel from across the great hall.  The lordly Elf had returned just that eve from a quick scouting trip to learn what had become of the Nazgûl that had so nearly ridden he and the hobbit down.  To the ruin of all, thought Aragorn.  All could have been lost before the Ring ever reached here.  Accepting Aragorn’s invitation to join him, Glorfindel slid gracefully into the adjoining chair with a weary sigh.

“How fares Frodo?”

Aragorn rubbed at his eyes tiredly.  “I would not have believed that one so small could fight so hard.  You should have seen him during the fortnight on the Road, my friend, after he was wounded.  He bore his suffering in silence.  In such bravery that it astonished my heart.”  The Ranger rubbed his eyes again, but this time it was to clear the invasive tears from his vision.  “I do not think I could have borne it as he did,” he said simply.

Glorfindel put a hand on the Man’s shoulder and squeezed gently.  “I think that Master Baggins owes his life not only to his own great spirit, but to the love and care of his friends.  Never have I seen a greater love than among those four.”

Aragorn nodded.  “Truly said.  May we all be as fortunate in our friends as Frodo Baggins.”  The Elf nodded in agreement, his eyes on Aragorn’s face.  The Ranger held out stubbornly for some moments, then sighed and answered his friend’s unspoken question.  “It was that friendship that set Sam and Merry and Pippin on me, fierce as wolves defending a cub, when they thought I might do Frodo harm.”

Glorfindel nodded again, his starry eyes sparkling in the candlelight.  “I see.  So many bruises from ones so small?”

Aragorn flushed under the gentle teasing.  “Well … I wound myself in my blanket and it tripped me.  I fell and hit my head on the floor.”

The Elf had the grace not to laugh outright.  “Brought low by three halflings and a blanket.  How very ignoble.”

“How goes the hunt?” asked Aragorn, keeping his voice soft.

Glorfindel paused to let one of the serving staff pour him a goblet of wine before answering.  When he had nodded his thanks and the Elf had glided away, the Elf-lord responded quietly, “We have found only eight of the mounts’ bodies.  I do not call those abominable creatures horses.”  The Elf’s fine nostrils flared in revulsion.  “The bodies were torn and broken by the boulders and tumbling waters.  Black cloaks we found also, ripped and slashed.  But there is no sign of the ninth Rider.”

“Have you found any hoof-prints away from the riverside?”

Glorfindel shook his blond head.  “Asfaloth and I searched far on both sides of the river.  We even backtracked along our route, the ground we covered in our desperate race to the Ford.  We found nothing.  I returned to report to our lord.  Others will continue the search.” 

The servers returned with their meals and both fell silent, unwilling to speak of fell things before innocent listeners.  The Elves placed the covered platters before the pair and bowed, withdrawing on silent feet.  With an apathetic sigh, Aragorn removed the cover.  He looked blankly at his dinner.  Artfully arranged on his plate was a small roast fowl, stuffed with sliced mushrooms and wild rice.  Next to it was a mound of fried potatoes and a bowl of braised mushrooms in a rich sauce.  The braised mushrooms were accompanied by a serving of sautéed mushrooms and onions and another of flattish, round mushrooms stuffed with chopped mushrooms, sausages, onions and greens.  And for afters, sweet meringues, piped and baked into the shape of small mushrooms, their caps dusted brown with cinnamon.

Glorfindel stared at his plate, slender shoulders shaking in mirth.  “Well, so do the halflings have an impact on us all.”

* * * * *

Pippin paused in fluffing a pillow for the small divan that he had chosen as a bed, checking the whereabouts of the others, in his anxiety needing to know where they were at all times.  As on the first night of their arrival in Rivendell, the hobbits had each drawn one of the small sofas near to Frodo, grouping them around the high bed loosely.  Pippin had been drafted to make up the beds.  Bilbo had stayed with them as afternoon deepened into night, talking and smoking, then departed for his own room, his wrinkled face worn with fatigue.  Sam was conversing softly with one of the Elves who had come to collect the supper trays and emptied dishes.  His task done, Pippin joined his cousin, sinking down cross-legged on the floor before the fire.  Merry’s pipe was in his hands and his brow was furrowed as he stared into the flames.  The pipe smoldered but Merry paid it no heed.  Pippin wondered what he was thinking.

He leaned against his cousin, his anchor in this uncharted sea of Big Folk and unfamiliar things.  “I’m tired, Merry.”

Merry put out his arm and Pippin nestled closer, allowing the tension to run out of him in the comfort of that familiar embrace.  He still felt exhausted, despite the relatively peaceful sleep of the previous two nights, and the nap he had taken earlier in the day.  Without meaning for it to, Pippin’s head began to sag against Merry’s chest.

“Lie down, Pippin-lad,” Merry told him, “and put your head in my lap.”  With a yawn, Pippin did, his face turned towards the fire.  Together they watched the flickering flames dance in the grate.  Merry tamped his pipe and laid it aside, restless hands reflecting the state of his restless mind as he stroked his younger cousin’s hair.  Pippin’s eyes closed slowly, struggled open, closed again and stayed that way as his breathing evened out and deepened.

“Poor lad,” breathed Sam softly as he joined them before the fire.  He carried a blanket, which he spread gently over the sleeping tweenager.  Sam lowered himself to Merry’s side stiffly, wincing as joints and muscles protested, unused to long hours of just sitting and watching.  “This is so hard on him.”

Merry nodded.  “Yes.  On all of us.  How are you holding up, Sam?”

“Oh, I’m all right, Mr. Merry.  Missing my Gaffer, though.  I wish Mr. Frodo was well enough for us ‘ta go home.”

Pippin murmured in his sleep, sharp face creasing, and Merry resumed stroking his hair.  “Me too, Sam.”

Sam shifted uncomfortably on the hard floor, then drew up his knees and looped his arms around them.  “Funny thing, that.  I thought meeting Elves an’ seeing Rivendell would be the most wonderful thing in the world.  All them years of dreaming about it…  Now here I am, and all I want to do is go home.”

Merry stretched his back, aware of his own aches engendered by hours of anxious waiting.  “Me too, Sam,” he repeated sadly.  He sighed, then looked at the beds Pippin had prepared for them.  “We’d best get some sleep.  Frodo’s going to need us tomorrow.”

“Aye,” agreed Sam, gritting his teeth against needle-stabs of pain as he dragged himself to his feet.

“Up you get, Pippin,” Merry ordered gently, tickling the end of his cousin’s pointed nose.  Pippin swatted at the offending hand but Merry persisted until Pippin groaned and dragged himself to his feet to stumble into his nightshirt and wash.  The adult hobbits followed suit.

Drained as he was, it was still long before Merry fell asleep.  The divan upon which he lay was well-padded and comfortable, but narrow.  Sam snored softly on the settee on the other side of Frodo’s bed, stretched out on his back, one arm bent back to cradle his head.  That sound that was becoming both familiar and comforting, Merry mused.  Sam had been insulted when Merry had teasingly informed him that he snored; the stocky hobbit had denied it adamantly.  Pippin slept prone on the divan pulled almost against his own, cheek crushed into his pillow, one arm dangling, a hairy foot pressed against Merry’s leg.  He wouldn’t be in that position long, Merry knew.  Even in sleep, his little cousin couldn’t stay still.  His tossing and turning had driven Sam near to distraction their single night in Bree.  Merry was grateful that he and the others had not really understood what the Black Riders were, that night of the attack on The Prancing Pony.  It was, he thought wearily, the last good night’s sleep he could remember.

If he knew then what he knew now, he would never have taken that foolish walk along the streets of Bree, away from the lights and folk of the inn.  Merry shivered as he remembered the dark forms that had risen from the shadows of that winding street of Men, the black cloaks advancing.  Then what Strider had called the Black Breath had overwhelmed him and he had fallen unconscious to the cobbles.  They had to know he didn’t carry the Ring.  What were they planning to do with him, had they succeeded in taking him?    

Merry’s heart began to race, and with a deliberate effort, he calmed himself.  Knowing he should sleep, he still fought against his tiredness to watch as Elladan rose several times to check on Frodo, to raise him slightly and carefully pour water down his throat, adjust his coverings, or merely lay a cool hand against a fevered brow.  They are kind, these Elves, Merry thought.  They care.  They won’t let anything bad happen to Frodo, if they can help it.  Just before the drowning tide of exhaustion pulled him under, the little voicein his mind echoed … if they can help it.

* TBC * 

Chapter Twelve

"Master Merry? Master Merry?"

Merry dragged himself to the surface of wakefulness with a gasp, as if he had been drowning. Elladan’s gentle hand caught his arm before the hobbit could roll himself off the divan in panic. His heart hammering, Merry stared up at the Elf’s face. "Be at peace," the young Elf-lord counseled. "There is no need for alarm. Frodo sleeps. It is only morning and time for you to wake."

Morning… Already? After a moment, Merry nodded, his equilibrium restored. Elladan smiled at him and moved on to wake Pippin, then circled ‘round Frodo’s bed to rouse Sam. Merry heard his friend grunt, then a groan from Pippin. His little cousin had curled up into so tight a ball, pillow squished over his head, that all that could be seen of him was a couple of hair-topped toes that stuck out beyond the blankets.

Merry stifled a groan of his own as he sat up. Why did Elven settees have to be so narrow? To accommodate narrow Elven backsides, that little voice of his said logically. He sternly ordered the voice to be silent and dragged himself to his feet, running his hands through tangled curls. "Pip, get up. Get up, Cousin." The toes twitched and disappeared under the blankets.

"Mornin’, sirs. Sleep well?" Cheerful morning people had always annoyed Merry. Sam knew that. He had seen Frodo and Merry drag themselves back to Bag End from The Green Dragon enough nights (or early mornings) to know that both of them appreciated a lazy waking, a hot bath and the comfort of the scent of brewing tea and mushroom omelets before being expected to exchange civil greetings. That’s what I feel like, Merry thought. Like the morning after a late, late night at the pub.

Sam was already standing at Frodo’s bedside, looking eagerly into his master’s face. Merry joined him there, but he could see no reason for optimism. Frodo lay quietly, no longer tossing restlessly. His face was very pale, serene. With a sudden start of his heart, Merry thought his cousin looked like he was already dead.

He must have made some soft sound, for Sam’s hand was on his arm. He raised tear filled eyes to look into the gardener’s broad face. "Don’t give up, Mr. Merry," Sam said quietly. "Lord Elrond will get that evil thing out o’ him today. Mr. Frodo’s made it this far, and he won’t give up now. He wouldn’t want you to give up, neither."

Not trusting his voice, Merry nodded. Elladan had been moving about the room, pouring fresh water into the basins for their use and opening the drapes. The warmth of the banked fire still permeated the room and Merry drifted to the cooler window area and stood looking out. The day outside appeared wet and cold, heavy drops of rain splattering on the balcony. The wind rose at that moment, wailing like a lost soul, and Merry shuddered. "It will dawn fine tomorrow," the Elf assured him. "This watering of the world presages a beautiful day."

Or the world weeping for the death of a cousin I love, mused Merry bleakly. He turned hurriedly from that morbid thought and focused his attention on the still-unmoving lump on the settee next to his. "Pippin, get up!" The lump whimpered. Three days now, Merry was thinking. We were a fortnight on the Road to Rivendell. Frodo’s carried a shard of the Morgul-blade that wounded him for seventeen days. How will he have the strength to bear this last, final attempt?

For good or for ill, Frodo's fate would be decided this day. Merry’s sensitive ears caught the click of a staff on the polished wooden floor, then the door swung quietly inward. Gandalf peered cautiously into the room, relaxing when he saw they were awake and moving about. At least some of them were. Merry frowned and poked Pippin, who growled in response but otherwise took no notice. "Good morning," the wizard greeted them. "Elrond asked me to see that you were all up. Up, if not dressed," he added pointedly.

"Perhaps breakfast would help," said a voice behind them. Gandalf stepped aside as Aragorn stepped into the room with a laden tray in his hands, leading an entourage of similarly-burdened Elves. The smell of food did what Merry could not – Pippin’s sharp nose appeared from out from under the blankets and twitched. After a moment the tweenager imparted a long-suffering sigh and dragged himself up and over to the washbasin. "There are eggs, sausages, bacon, ham, toast and scones with jam, potatoes, mushrooms, broiled tomatoes… What are you staring at, Merry?"

"Your face," began Merry, before his mind censored his mouth. "Er, I mean…"

Aragorn sat down the tray on the side table and grimaced. "I would like you to know that had that blanket not tripped me, I would have given a good account of myself," he said with great gravity. "These bruises are badges of honor. Furthermore –"

"Estel told me they were honorably won," came Arwen’s sweet voice from the door, "defending himself against overwhelming odds." The effect that her entrance had on the half-dressed hobbits was astonishing. Sam threw himself under a divan, struggling to don his breeches. Pippin, shirtless, yelped and tried to hide behind the washstand.

"Against the overwhelmingly odd, anyway," remarked Gandalf acerbically. "I will tell Elrond you are awake. My lady," he said to Arwen, and left.

Merry, as the only hobbit fully clad (if only in a nightshirt), drew himself up on his dignity. Then he bowed. "Good morning, Lady Arwen. Please forgive us – we are not quite ready for company."

Arwen smiled at him, amusement in her lovely eyes. "My apologies. My father has asked me to tell you that he wishes Frodo to be bathed and readied for the surgery. Elladan," she addressed her brother, "Elrohir will take the watch from you shortly. Father says you are to rest and ready yourself to assist. He will begin when the sun is at its highest." The hobbits’ eyes traveled to the miserable day outside. "After luncheon," Arwen amended. "Though if you insist upon being present, it might be wise not to eat beforehand."

A whimper came from the direction of the washstand. Merry gulped. "Thank you, my lady," he replied as evenly as he could.

Arwen looked at him sadly, then at the silent and unmoving patient on the bed. "I’m sorry," she said softly, and was gone.

Elrohir came before they had finished breakfast. Aragorn stayed at Frodo’s bedside while the brothers greeted each other. Merry had no hopes of learning anything significant; the twins’ entire conversation consisted of arched eyebrows and nods and looks into each others’ eyes. They evidently understood each other perfectly. Elladan bowed and took his leave of them, saying that he would see them in a few hours.

After the flurry of returning the emptied dishes, the hobbits found themselves with nothing to occupy their hands and minds. Bilbo had sent word he would join them later; the unexpected rain troubled his joints and made movement painful. Aragorn and Elrohir talked softly in Elvish, or increasingly, waited in stillness. Sam sat quietly by Frodo’s bedside, holding his master’s hand and rubbing it gently. Pippin stood looking out at the rain, his hands upon the carved window-sill, his shoulders slumped. Every few minutes he would trail from the window to Frodo’s bedside and stare into his cousin’s face. Then back to the window and out at the rain. When the silence became unbearable, Merry shifted in his chair and sought a distraction. "Sam, can you give us a song? Something bright and silly, to take our minds off … things?"

Sam looked over at him but shook his head. "I’m sorry, sir. I don’t think I have any songs left in me." His eyes had already turned back to Frodo before he finished speaking.

This would never do. The grief and apprehension in the room were tangible things, wrapping around them and suffocating their spirits. His earlier ruminations brought something to mind. "Would you like to hear why Pip is forbidden to wake Frodo up?" he asked Aragorn and Elrohir rather desperately.

That caught Pippin’s attention. The tweenager blushed a bright shade of red and interjected hurriedly, "Oh, Merry, no one cares about that old story. It was so long ago. And I was just a child. And it really wasn’t anything –"

"Any tale that raises so many objections must truly be worth telling," observed Aragorn.

"No, not really. Merry, don’t you dare –"

"Pippin was just eleven," Merry began loudly. "Frodo had invited him – well, I had invited him, but that’s another story – to visit at Bag End, just after Bilbo had left. Frodo was feeling lonely and depressed, and needed some cheering up. Pip had been there a couple of days when he decided that he wanted his breakfast one morning. Frodo and I had rather a late night of it, the night before. The lad was driving us to drink, you understand –"

"I was not! You just wanted to finish off that bottle of port!"

"Driving us to drink," Merry repeated at full volume, "and we weren’t … uhm … feeling very well…"

"You weren’t in no pain the night before," added Sam, then ducked his head to hide a smile when Merry glared at him.

"Anyway, Pippin was old enough to fix his own breakfast. Frodo had thoughtfully set out the bread and butter and honey and jam and all Pip had to do was slice a piece and put it on the toasting fork and make his own toast. That’s what we thought…"

"It wasn’t my fault," growled Pippin, coming to settle at Merry’s feet. He looped his arms around his knees and stared up at his cousin.

"Then Pippin decided he would make us sweetcakes. Frodo had made them a few days earlier, and I have to admit, our cousin does make good sweetcakes." Merry smiled in remembrance. "Pippin pretty much knew where everything was, having conducted a thorough inventory of Frodo’s larder, and he started mixing up a great big batch. Unfortunately … he’d never made sweetcakes and didn’t really know how to."

"I saw Cook do it enough times," Pippin responded in injured tones.

"You never saw Cook put yeast in sweetcakes, Pip," Merry returned with exaggerated patience.

"They’re cakes," Pippin explained. "Everyone knows you put yeast in cakes if you want them to rise. Isn’t that right, Sam?"

"You don’t put yeast in sweetcakes, Master Pippin."

"How was I to know that? I was only eleven. If my elder cousins had been teaching me to cook instead of drinking themselves insensible –"

"The story?" Aragorn prompted hurriedly.

"Oh. Right. The story." Merry nodded. "Well, I wandered in," ("Dragged himself in, he means," Pippin hissed to Elrohir) "and well, things had got a little out of hand." Pippin flushed. "There was batter everywhere. It seemed our Pip had decided to save some time by making one huge sweetcake and cutting it up, instead of pouring lots of smaller ones. From the amount of batter he had made, lots and lots and lots and lots of smaller ones… If he hadn’t put yeast in the batter, it would only have been a disaster. But since he did - well, it was a catastrophe. The batter expanded like a …like…" Merry seem stumped, waving his hands vaguely in the air. "Like unwatched bread dough before the fire. It puffed up out of the fry pan and flowed out onto the stove and over the stove and onto the floor and across the floor and…"

"I think they have the idea, Merry," said Pippin stiffly.

Merry was obviously enjoying himself hugely. Aragorn and Elrohir exchanged an amused glance. "Pippin was covered with it – he had tried to tamp it down then when that failed, push it back into the pan with his hands. It was in his hair, all over his clothes, everywhere." He paused to grin at his cousin. "Not only was it sticky, it was slippery, too. When Pip saw me standing horrified in the doorway, he spun around and went down with a crash.

"Frodo’s not the best housekeeper, you see, and I’m afraid we hadn’t put away all the supplies we’d bought at the market the day before. There was a lovely big bag of corn propped up next to the grate, and the new tub of lard, and apples … everything we’d bought, really. As luck would have it, Pippin came down on the corn. It softened his landing, but it overbalanced and spilled into the lard, which knocked the apples over. The whole mess rolled out onto the floor in a frothing heap, rolling little Pippin across the floor with it."

Pippin was hunching up, mortified by this recitation. Merry patted the top of his head consolingly. "I tried to reach Pip to make sure he was all right, and lost my footing. Then I couldn’t get up – the smashed apples made the floor more slippery than ice. Pippin managed it, however. I suppose falling and then being covered with corn kernels and smashed apple and lard and batter and everything else was the last straw. The poor lad struggled to his feet and ran for Frodo.

"The bedrooms in Bag End are a bit farther along the smial and none of the commotion had carried to him. Frodo opened his eyes to the most horrifying sight imaginable," ("It wasn’t my fault!" Pippin protested again), "which then flung itself on him and proceeded to wail piercingly in his ear. I could hear Frodo’s scream from the kitchen."

Pippin grinned in spite of himself. "He did take on, a bit. It wasn’t like I was going to eat him or anything."

"You should have seen what you looked like, Pip. After he got his breath back, he sent both of us out into the garden and Sam threw buckets of water over us until we were clean enough to take a bath. Frodo needed one, too. Then we spent the day mopping the kitchen, the hallway, and Frodo’s bedroom."

From Sam’s chair came an amused snort. "Never saw anything like it. Most awful thing I ever saw in me life. No wonder Mr. Frodo took on so." He tilted his head consideringly. "The Gaffer’s pigs ate well, though. For several days."

That story led into others, and by the time second breakfast had been delivered, hobbits and Big People both were in much more of an optimistic mood. Elrohir and Aragorn declined food in favor of preparing for Frodo’s bath, choosing to use a copper half-tub instead of sponging him down. They assembled the necessities while waiting for the heated water to be delivered. While the hobbits ate with good appetite, Elrohir drew Aragorn off as they checked over the supplies and instruments that Elrond would need.

"Is there no way to send them from the room while Father works?" the Elf asked his foster brother, his back to the eating hobbits while he spoke. "Aside from the grief it will bring to them, we cannot count on them standing by if worst comes to worst, and we must free Frodo’s soul before the splinter takes him. Your face bears evidence to that."

"Other than bodily carrying them from the room – or drugging them – no." Aragorn’s reply was softer yet, for he knew that Elrohir’s ears would pick up his breathed words. "They would never forgive us."

Elrohir shook his head, the dark braids at his temples swinging. "What they would forgive or not bears little on what is best for Frodo. Or for them, for that matter."

"Yet it was Merry who saved him during Father’s first attempt, and Pippin who undoubtedly saved his life when he stopped breathing. I think Bilbo has kept him from dying by pure force of will. And do you doubt that it is Sam’s love and care that holds him to life, even now?"

Elrohir looked over at the hobbits. Instead of withdrawing to the small side table to eat, they had grouped themselves around Frodo’s bed, balancing their trays upon their laps. Their talk and quiet laughter enveloped their stricken friend just as surely as did the blankets and pillows.

The young Elf sighed, acquiescing. "You are right. It would be cruel to separate them."

The Man nodded. "Let us get him bathed and ready. I want to get another of Father’s tonics down him before we start, and give it time to enter his system. Perhaps it will help." Aragorn moved to join the small circle of hobbits, who welcomed him with smiles. As they had seen him do before, he slid behind Frodo and lifted him up against his chest, holding him with one hand while using the other to administer the cordial brought with the hobbits’ "second breakfast."

Pippin took the bottle from him when he was finished and sniffed it curiously before setting it on the nightstand. "It smells dreadful," the tweenager observed, his sharp face twisting up in a grimace. "Is he going to have to take more of it when he’s better?"

"I fear so," Aragorn replied absently, placing his hands on Frodo’s throat to check the pulse-point. As he did so, the edge of his finger brushed the chain that held the Ring. Suppressing a shudder, Aragorn carefully caught up a thick fold of the bed sheet and used it to shield his hand as he maneuvered the Ring around to rest against Frodo’s back.

"Good luck," commented Pippin briefly.

Smiling wryly, Aragorn slid his arm under Frodo and lifted him carefully, blankets and all, and carried him over to the newly filled copper tub. Elrohir plucked off his coverings and they together slid him gently into the half-tub, supporting him so that the water only came up to his chest, below the bandaged wound. Frodo’s face tightened as the water covered him, then relaxed in the soothing warmth. Elrohir and Aragorn washed him carefully, including his hair, leaving dry only the wound.

After asking if they could help and being assured that their assistance was not necessary, the hobbits disposed of the trays and busied themselves straightening the room; collecting their used bedding and dragging the divans back to their original positions. Housekeeping chores done, they grouped themselves around the fire, waiting. When they were finished, Elrohir folded several fresh towels and blankets and laid them on the floor before the fire, where Aragorn gently laid Frodo down by the heat, turning his head so his hair would dry. Then they took chairs and waited.

Frodo’s hair had dried completely into springy dark curls before Aragorn gathered him gently up and returned him to the high bed. Scarcely had he done so when Elrohir rose to answer Elrond’s soft knock. No one had mentioned luncheon, not even Pippin. Gandalf followed the Elf-lord, as did Elladan and Arwen, and lastly, Bilbo. Elrond’s dark eyes moved over the small group, then traveled to the weeping clouds outside. "It is time," he said quietly. "This will be our last effort." He looked at them sorrowfully. "I will do all that can be done … but you must understand that even with the greatest heart, strength may fail at last. If so, then I will not surrender Frodo to darkness and eternal torment. Do you accept this?"

Merry closed his eyes and nodded. It took Samwise and Pippin a moment longer to understand. When they did, tears started to drip quietly down their faces. Bilbo moved from behind Gandalf and put his arms around them, whispering in their ears. The old hobbit guided them into the same corner they had sheltered in before, and they sank down to the cushions they had laid there earlier. Merry stood a moment longer, then turned and followed them.

"Good," Elrond said. The twins were preparing the instruments, soaking glittering scalpels and knives in steaming containers of boiling water and laying them out. Arwen was arranging various bottles and vials on the small table, setting out cloths and bandages. Aragorn attended to Elrond, washing his foster father’s hands and lower arms carefully, wiping them with a strong-smelling solution. The Elf-lord watched their work with approval. When all stepped back, Elrond moved forward, Gandalf at his side. For a long moment the Elf-lord did nothing but stare into his patient’s still face, then he took up the cloth that Arwen had prepared and wiped it carefully across Frodo’s chest and side. "Take your positions, my children. We begin."

* TBC *

Chapter Thirteen

“I will sit with the hobbits,” Gandalf said quietly.  He, too, had been staring into Frodo’s still face and Merry saw him reach out the hand not grasping his staff and gently push back a dark curl that had drifted into the closed eyes.  The wizard cupped the side of Frodo’s face for a moment, warming the cold cheek.  Then Gandalf placed that hand on Elrond’s shoulder and squeezed it gently before joining them in the corner.

“Move over, Merry,” Gandalf ordered.  Merry complied, scooting to the side and forcing Pippin to wiggle over to make room for him.  On the wizard’s other side, Sam shifted over a little farther and leaned against the wall while Bilbo claimed the corner between them, bracing his old back against the joining of the walls.  Gandalf glared at the piled cushions for a moment then folded himself down upon them with a grunt.  Merry had half-expected Pippin to clamber over him into Gandalf’s lap again but this time his little cousin stayed at his side, pressing against him, seeking comfort.  Merry slipped an arm around him and discovered that Pippin was trembling.  He buried his nose in his cousin’s curls for a moment, smelling the fragrance of soap and clean hair and life.

Shifting uncomfortably, Gandalf bent his knees and tucked his long legs under himself with a groan, grumbling something about “hobbits” and “hard floor” under his breath.  Sam offered to pull some of the larger, overstuffed cushions-pads off the divans for him, but Gandalf shook his head.  Despite the distraction, Merry noticed that instead of leaning his staff out of the way against the wall, Gandalf casually positioned it on the floor in front of him.  In front of all of them.  Bilbo and Sam did not notice, so intent were they upon the scene before them.  Again, the hobbits were placed too low to see what was actually happening.  Merry ventured out a toe.

“Merry, sit still,” commanded the wizard gruffly.  Merry withdrew the toe to see Gandalf bristling at him. 

Bilbo glanced over at him in annoyance.  “Young people can’t sit still these days,” the elderly hobbit commented.  “Meriadoc, don’t be a bother.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Merry obediently, resolving to test that innocent-looking staff at the first opportunity.  If Gandalf thought to bar Merry from his cousin, he had best think again…

With another glance to assure himself that his assistants were positioned correctly – Arwen by Elladan at Frodo’s head, and Elrohir at the hobbit’s feet – Elrond spent a long moment studying the glittering tray of knives.  He selected one with a long blade and bent over Frodo, out of Merry’s line of sight.  With a sudden, convulsive movement, Merry stood.

“Sit down, Merry,” Gandalf said sternly.  Pippin tugged mutely at his waistcoat.  Merry shook his head, gently disentangling the tweenager’s fingers from the fabric.

“I won’t,” he said clearly.  “I want to see what is happening, and I can’t do that on the floor.”

“Meriadoc Brandybuck,” growled the wizard, “if you don’t sit down -”

“Let him watch.”  Support came unexpectedly from Arwen, and a moment later, in a murmured agreement from Aragorn.  The Elf-maid glanced at her beloved in gratitude, then continued, “We know so little of halflings, Father.  Merry knows his cousin well.  He might be able to tell us if Frodo is in distress before any physical sign.”

Elrond considered for a moment, his dark head tilted to the side.  “Wisely said, my daughter.  Very well, Master Meriadoc – you may observe.  But you will remain where you are.”

“Yes, sir,” Merry agreed, resisting the urge to nudge the staff until no one was looking at him.

Elrond took a half-step closer and bent over the high bed.  Even from his higher vantage point, Merry had to draw himself up to see the blade laid against Frodo’s shoulder, to see the crimson line drawn in the white flesh that opened like a pair of red lips.  With his other hand, Elrond drew those lips together, slowing the bleeding.  The healer moved the bloodied blade aside and Elladan took it from him.  Then slowly, Elrond spread the wound and slipped the fingers of his long hand inside the fresh cut. 

Merry refused to avert his eyes as the skin of Frodo’s left shoulder rose under the pressure of those long fingers, like unbaked dough inflating in the warmth of a sunny windowsill.  This time Elrond came in at a different angle, aiming more downwards.  The long fingers crooked inside of Frodo’s body, searching…  Merry saw Frodo shudder, saw the dark head turn towards him slightly, eyes still shut but pain was visible there in the line between his brows and the tensing of his face.  The silent plea for rescue that Merry fancied he saw there almost sent him forward, but he caught himself.  He’s unconscious, Merry reminded himself.  He doesn’t feel it.  Frodo gasped, his dark brows quirking.  Oh please, please, don’t let him feel it…

For a long time, Elrond stood over the small figure with his hand moving slowly, ever so slowly inside of Frodo’s body.  Merry saw that the Elf-lord would close his eyes, then after a long moment move his fingers an infinitesimal measure forward, then search from side to side.  Merry understood that this method of probing would cause the least amount of additional damage.  Was the Elf-lord somehow searching with his mind as well as his fingers?  Elrond’s face was beaded with perspiration, his elegant high-browed face rigid with concentration.  Even his breathing was controlled, but he inhaled and exhaled as if it were an effort.  Beside him, Elladan was silent, totally focused on anticipating his father’s need for any instrument without hesitation.  Arwen kept her eyes on Frodo’s face, monitoring his breathing and the pulse-point in his throat, but she would raise them now and then and use her free hand to catch up a dampened cloth and gently blot the perspiration from Elrond’s brow, careful never to let her hand or the cloth interfere with her father’s line of sight. 

Elrohir, at Frodo’s feet, kept his hands resting firmly on the hobbit’s ankles, intent on his father’s work.  He too was ready in case he was needed, but not so closely involved in the surgery.  Now and then his clear gaze would lift to the hobbits, to Gandalf, or to the slow darkening of the afternoon outside.  The rain had stopped and the pale sun shone weakly.  Elrohir would regard his father with concern when Elrond would periodically straighten and stretch his long back, a grimace of pain looking most out-of-place on his serene face.  It was only by this periodic interruption of the work did Merry truly register how much time was passing.  With no results.

At last Elrond straightened again and withdrew his hand.  Crimson droplets dripped from it for a moment before Arwen caught it in a linen, wiping the long fingers carefully.  “I cannot find it,” the Elf-lord murmured, fatigue evident in his voice.  “I cannot find it.”

Elrohir and Elladan released their hold and sought seats, as did Elrond.  Arwen stayed at her post, slender hands and eyes watchful on Frodo’s body.  Elrond sank into the nearest chair as if his legs would not support him.  He raised a shaking hand to accept the goblet of wine that Aragorn pressed upon him. 

Aragorn washed the healer’s bloodied hand while Elrond drank, tipping back the goblet to drain the last dregs.  When Aragorn would have refilled it, the Elf-lord shook his head.  “No more,” he murmured to the Ranger softly.  “Let me rest for a few moments.”

“What’s happening?”  Sam could restrain himself no longer, his round face wan and his grey eyes tear filled.  He scrubbed at them with a shirtsleeve, his hand shaking.  “Lord Elrond, please - what’s happening?”

“The shard has traveled almost to his heart,” Elrond said slowly.  “It has moved more in these last few hours than in all the days the hobbit bore it hence.  How can this be?”

Gandalf rose stiffly, levering himself to his feet with an audible popping of joints. He stepped over his staff and walked laboriously to Frodo’s bedside.  Laying a wrinkled hand on the pale chest, his brow furrowed as he noted the almost imperceptible rise and fall of breath.  Merry edged sideways behind the staff, bringing Gandalf back into his view.  Had it been his imagination or had the staff quivered, just a little, when he had moved to follow the wizard’s actions?

For long moments Gandalf gazed down at the still face of his young friend.  “It is the Ring,” the wizard said softly.  Elrond’s head jerked up, startled and horrified. The others in the room gasped.  “It calls all evil things to it,” Gandalf continued, realization dawning on his own face.  “When we put it around Frodo’s throat, it gave him the strength to live through the night.  But it also accelerated the movement of the splinter of that cursed blade.  It summoned it, called it … drew it to itself.   

“We’ve killed him,” Gandalf whispered.  “I’ve killed him.”

“Such a thing is not possible,” argued Elrond, some color returning to his face.  Arwen and her brothers looked anxiously between them.  “The Rings of Power do not –“

“The Rings of Power made by the Elves do not,” Gandalf cut him off bitterly.  “This is the One Ring.  It answers only to its master.  It has a will of its own, do not forget.”  Gandalf frowned, struggling to articulate what he was just beginning to comprehend.  “Frodo holds to life by a thread.  Whether the Ring understands this we cannot know, but its master’s purpose would be served by the Ring-bearer’s death.  Nothing we could do would prevent Frodo’s wraith from bringing it to him.”

No sooner had Gandalf uttered these words than a great cloud passed before the westering sun, and the room was plunged into darkness.  A cold wind whipped in through the glassless windows, a moaning snarling rush of air that chilled the weary occupants.  The lamps guttered and went out.  As one, the hobbits cried out in startlement and fear.  Sam shot to his feet and looked wildly about.  Pippin pressed close to Merry, frightened eyes searching the dark corners of the room.  Merry leaned down to put a hand on his shoulder reassuringly, but he too felt danger and threat in the suddenly freezing room.   Unnoticed by all but Merry, the staff swung on the floor, then went still when they did not attempt to cross it.  

“Close the shutters!  Draw the drapes!” shouted Elrond, springing to his feet.  With elven speed, the two sons of Elrond dashed to the windows and shuttered them and drew across the great curtains.  “Arwen, Estel,” continued Elrond in a calmer voice, “Relight the lamps – now!  Then bring you many lamps into this room – all you can quickly find.  Candles, too.  Set them everywhere.  There must not be a single shadow here.”

“What is it, Elrond?”  Bilbo voice quivered with exhaustion, but rang with courage.

“Mithrandir has discerned the Enemy’s purpose, Bilbo,” Elrond replied.  He dipped his hands into the basin, washing his hands quickly in the greenish liquid, his expression remote and grim.  “The Dark Lord knows we understand now.  He will bring all of his strength against us.”

“What do you mean?” cried Merry.  Arwen returned, her arms filled with lamps.  Elladan and Elrohir helped her to set them about the room and light them.  Merry and the others leaped to lend a hand and suddenly the staff hovered before their noses, swinging in mid-air slightly as it barred their advance.  Sam sucked in his breath and Pippin yelped in shock.  “Gandalf!” cried Merry, as the gnarled piece of wood oriented on him.  “Gandalf!”

The wizard glanced up from Frodo’s face and made an annoyed, chopping gesture in one hand.  The staff quivered then gently drifted down to resume its former position on the floor.  Not willing to step over it, the hobbits edged around its ends and past it.  Sam hurried to stir up the fire, adding a fresh log.  Merry fell to his knees beside him and lit a taper, handing it to Pippin.  The tweenager pivoted and with trembling hands, used it to kindle the candles.  Merry lit a taper for himself and dashed to the candles on the other side of the room.  The twins attended to the wall sconces, too high for the hobbits’ reach. Then Aragorn returned, a great tray between his hands upon which he had crowded every oil lamp and light he could lay his hands on.  Quickly the hobbits moved to assist him.

“Hurry!  Hurry, Mithrandir!”  Elrond shook the pungent liquid from his hands while Gandalf moved to Frodo’s head, taking Elladan’s place, his strong hands holding the bare shoulders down. 

“The Ring is calling the splinter to Frodo’s heart, young hobbit,” Elrond said to Merry, his gaze sweeping to all of the hobbits as he belatedly answered his question.  His hand hovered over the tray of knives.  “As it lay behind and beneath his body, it was pulling the splinter towards itself.  Pulling it towards his heart, which lay between them.  Seeking to impale it.”

“Now we have discerned its purpose,” Gandalf continued.  “The Enemy is too far away to stop us overtly, but his arm is long.  He can still command his possession.  We must find and remove the splinter before he can turn his Eye upon it.”

Elrohir and Arwen had finished the lamps, and every corner of the room glowed with light.  Most of the lights had been grouped around Frodo, outlining him in brilliance.  Merry had to squint his eyes to see past them, and that brought home to him how dark it had become outside. 

“Watch the lamps and candles, little masters,” Elrond ordered.  “See that they do not go out – or set my House ablaze.”  He laid his hand gently on Frodo’s face, then glanced into Gandalf’s eyes.  “Be alert,” he said to the wizard.  “There is no more time for careful seeking.  Hold him down!”

Elrond took up one of the thin-bladed knives and laid it past the slashed flesh where his fingers had sought without success.  He hesitated then, staring down at the pale skin, the blade wavering.  Then his mouth firmed into a thin line and he pushed the blade down.  Frodo screamed, suddenly, shockingly.  His entire body arced and had not Gandalf and Elrohir been holding him down, he would have bucked himself off the bed.  His eyes flew open, white-rimmed, staring, but there was no intelligence there.  Only pain.  Only unspeakable agony. 

Merry thought he would faint.  Pippin echoed his cousin’s cry, clapping his hands over his ears, falling into a crumpled heap upon the floor.  Bilbo looked scarcely less faint than Merry but the old hobbit tried to rub Pippin’s back, murmuring comforting nonsense.  Arwen went swiftly to them and sank down beside Pippin, gathering him into her lap.  Bilbo looked at her gratefully as Pippin clung to her and sobbed, burying his face against her bosom. 

Merry dragged his eyes back to Frodo.  How had the white linens turned red so quickly?  He had only looked away for the barest moment.  There was so much blood.  Elrond had cast aside the knife and both his hands were now on Frodo’s chest.  The Elf-lord bent over him, no longer able to afford the luxury of caution.  His long hands tensed and probed, and Frodo screamed again.  Merry clenched his hands into his crossed arms to keep from throwing himself at the Elf-lord and tearing him away from Frodo.  He must not interfere.  He felt as if his heart was going to rip itself from his chest.  The pressure was agonizing.  Merry dug his hands deeper into his own arms, not noticing the half-moons of blood that rose under his fingernails to stain his shirt. 

Another blast of unnatural, icy wind slammed against the shutters, shrieking through the slats and tearing at them with the ferocity of a wild beast.  Two were torn from their hinges.  The drapes were ripped from their poles and flew across the room.  Aragorn leaped before they could entwine themselves around Elrond, around Frodo, pulling them aside.  One snapped at his face, striking at his eyes like a snake.  Aragorn turned his face away and tightened his hold, seeking to wind them across his forearm while they fought him like a thing alive.  The drapes writhed and slid out of his reach, wrapping their length around his throat.

Elladan rushed to his aid, entwining his hands in the strangling cloth and seeking to pull it away from his foster brother’s throat.  Aragorn, choking, managed to force his hand between the cloth and his throat and won a breath.  Elrohir called something, but none could make out his words over the shrieking of the wind.  As he fought to relight the lamps, Merry saw in horror that the wooden bar holding the great balcony doors shut was bending.  The force of the freezing wind was going to splinter the bar, and before he could warn the others, it did.

Gandalf’s head swung towards the doors as the bar groaned and snapped.  Raising one hand from Frodo’s shoulder, he gestured towards the balcony and shouted a single word.  From the floor, his staff leaped into the air and sped towards the doors, wedging itself across the shutters just as the bar broke and dropped to the floor in two pieces.

“Keep the lamps lit!” shouted Gandalf.  He and Elrond were bent over Frodo and Merry could not see past them.  Sam tried to comply, catching up a flaming stick from the fire.  Merry struggled to assist him, lifting each glass for Sam and re-fitting it to quicken their task.   The room was so cold that his fingers fumbled with the glass chimneys and he dropped one.  It shattered on the hard floor.   Bilbo motioned for the two younger hobbits to continue their task, carefully gathering up the razor-edged shards and splinters himself and wrapping them in his handkerchief.  The wind rose again, throwing itself against the slats, and Gandalf’s staff creaked.  The wizard shuddered, his face paling with pain.   Pippin fought to rise but Arwen kept him down, her arms locked about him, whispering in his ear.  Gandalf suddenly closed his eyes, his bearded face strained.  “Hurry, Elrond!  The Eye is turning towards us!”

* TBC *

Chapter Fourteen

Merry rocked on his feet, torn between aiding Aragorn and Elladan, helping Sam rekindle the blown-out lamps, assisting Bilbo in gathering up the broken glass before someone was hurt, protecting Pippin as he huddled on the floor, or staying with his wounded cousin.  Another breathless cry from Aragorn decided him.  The Ranger was on his back now, thrashing from side to side, tearing at the strangling draperies.  Elladan hovered over him, trying to drag the ensorcelled curtains from around his throat.  Then the trailing end reared back and lashed the Elf across the eyes.  Elladan cried out and fell backwards, clawing at his face, momentarily blinded.

That decided him.  Merry flung himself to Aragorn’s side and snatched his sharp belt-knife from its sheath.  The Ranger’s face was grey and his lips almost blue.  The fabric was wound so tightly around his throat that it was pressed deep into the tanned flesh.  His widened eyes met Merry’s weakly, then fluttered closed and his struggling hands went limp.

Aragorn had no time for Merry to be careful.  The hobbit threw himself onto the Ranger’s torso and slashed at the thick fabric.  He could not gain enough leeway to slide his dagger under it.  Praying he did not cut Aragorn’s throat, Merry sawed at the writhing cloth, watching as it parted under his sharp blade.  Then something wrapped itself around his neck and jerked him backwards.  Merry stabbed desperately over his shoulder and felt his knife slide uselessly through cloth.  The draperies had perhaps expected more resistance than the light hobbit, for Merry flew backwards and the trailing end that had lashed Elladan loosened from his throat.  In a flash, Merry ducked under the noose and rolled to the side just in time to see it clamp shut on empty air.

The length rose into the air and swayed before him like a snake before its prey.  Merry wove before it in a knife-fighter’s stance, crouching, knife raised, unsure of how to attack the thing.  Then something small and compact flung itself on the thing’s back with a shriek of pure rage that froze Merry’s heart.  Pippin pinned the snake-thing to the floor with his body and knotted his hands around its end, rolling onto his back with his legs extended while the thing rippled and twisted in fury.  In a flash, Merry understood.  He leaped forward and slashed across the length Pippin stretched out for him.  The fabric parted with a ripping sound almost like a scream and fell limply on top of Pippin in two pieces.

Merry left the pieces to Pippin and dashed back to the Ranger.  The opposite end had loosened about Aragorn’s throat as if the mind directing it had been distracted.  Aragorn’s eyes had opened and he was pulling frantically at the strangling cloth.  His bulging eyes met the hobbit’s then he was arching his head back, digging his fingers in deep to pull the fabric back as far as he could.  Merry slashed downward, wincing as he left a red score along the Man’s skin in his haste.

The sliced curtains fell away.  Aragorn inhaled explosively and began coughing in great tearing rasps.  Merry crouched by the Ranger’s side, knife ready, his eyes never leaving the quivering fabric.  It jolted and convulsed, twisting in upon itself like a dying thing.  A moment later he felt Pippin press against his side, trembling violently.  Tears streaming from his half-closed eyes, Elladan crawled over to them and all four crowded together, fighting to regain their breath.  The slashed remnants of the draperies shuddered once more and were still.

Arwen knelt at her beloved’s side, pressing the dampened cloth against the short slice the knife had made.  Merry’s knife was so sharp that it had cut cleanly and there was little blood.  Aragorn looked up at her and caught her hand, kissing her fingers as she rose to return to her station. 

Panting, Merry pushed himself up on his arms.  The room was still freezing cold and he could see puffs of air before him as he gasped.  The bitter, unnatural cold streaming in through the slats seemed almost to help; it focused their need and kept their minds on the task at hand.  Sam was struggling with the lamps, casting them anxious glances between trimming the wicks and relighting those that had been extinguished, and Merry nodded jerkily to let him know they were unharmed.

“All right there, lads?” came Bilbo’s soft voice.  Merry had not heard him approach.  Looking up, he saw that the old hobbit had collected every piece of the enchanted draperies, and as he watched, Bilbo bent painfully down and gathered up the remaining pieces of the one that had nearly finished Aragorn.  The old hobbit rested a shaking hand on Merry’s head for a moment then moved it over to caressed Pippin’s face.  “Well done, brave hearts,” he whispered to them.  With a nod to them all, he returned to his cushion in the corner of the room and began using a piece of glass from the broken lamp to methodically shred the cloth into little strips.

“Merry, Pippin,” Aragorn choked, running his hand across his mouth.  He shifted onto his knees before them, looking into their eyes.  “My friends…  You saved my life.  Thank you.”  Merry nodded in reply but Pippin flung his arms around the Man and hugged him.  Aragorn hugged the tweenager back, his eyes closing for a moment as he buried his face in Pippin’s hair.  Beside him, Elladan swiped at his burning eyes a final time and rose to his feet, holding out a hand to help his foster brother up.  Pippin leaned against Merry’s legs, too drained for the moment to stand.  Aragorn swayed for a moment, then clapped Merry on the shoulder before returning to Elrond’s side. 

Gandalf still stood at his cousin’s head as Elrohir did at his feet, holding Frodo down.  On the opposite side, Elrond leaned over his cousin.  Arwen, more light.”  Elrond sounded calm but Merry heard tension and weariness straining the Elf-lord’s normally melodious voice.  The healer did not glance up when Arwen moved to obey.  Aragorn rubbed at his throat where he had almost been garroted and coughed painfully.  Elladan pressed his arm and followed his sister

Arwen picked up one of the lamps that Sam had re-lit and held it carefully over her father’s shoulder.  Outside the circle of light that encompassed Frodo, it seemed so very dark.  The many lamps blazed radiantly under Sam’s watchful eye, but even so, Merry thought, the room seemed cheerless and dark.  So very dark.  And freezing.  The icy, howling winds redoubled their efforts, battering at the barred shutters until Merry feared that Gandalf’s staff would shatter as had the bar that held them shut.  What might happen then he feared to think.

“Deeper … it must be deeper…  Yes, hold the lamp up higher, my daughter.  More to the right.”  Frodo was writhing on the bed, his dark head lashing from side to side.  He was breathing hoarsely, gasping as if he could not gather enough air into his lungs.  Gandalf released one shoulder to catch Frodo’s flailing right hand, forcing it to stillness against his side.  The left never moved nor evidenced any sign that it was part of a living body.  At Frodo’s feet, Elrohir pressed down more firmly on the trembling ankles.

“Stay with us, Frodo,” Gandalf muttered.  Frodo’s eyes opened and stared up at the wizard hovering over him, but Merry knew his cousin did not see his friend.  What those brilliant eyes did see, lost in pain and delirium, Merry could not bear to imagine.  Frodo arched his back, his face contorting.  “Stay with us!” the wizard ordered in such a commanding voice that Merry shivered. 

“No … we are losing him.”  Elrond’s soft whisper resounded through the quiet room like a shout.  Beside him, Aragorn murmured something into the Elf-lord’s ear that Merry could not catch.  Elrond shook his head, blood leaving red trails on Frodo’s skin as it dripped from his long hands.  The red trails ran from Frodo’s pale chest in rivulets, pooling on the already stained linens beneath him.  “Not yet,” the healer replied.  “Not until there is no other choice.”

“Merry?  Merry, what’s happening?”  Pippin started to climb to his feet but Merry caught him, pushing him towards Bilbo before he could see the blood.

“Sam, will you take Pippin to Bilbo, please?” Merry murmured.  Sam caught the tweenager’s arm and kept him from turning around.   In Sam’s eyes Merry saw that he too knew what Aragorn had whispered.  But the gardener said nothing, only guiding a confused Pippin over to their eldest cousin, who quickly tugged the lad down beside him.  Bilbo began whispering in Pippin’s ear, holding both of his hands in his own as Pippin paled.  Sam dropped next to them and stared at his clenched fists, his face pallid as tears gathered in his eyes and began to drip down his cheeks.

Merry remained standing.  He did not think he could move, not if all the ensorcelled draperies in the world were to throw themselves at him.  He must not move.  He must not go to Frodo’s aid.  He must let them do what they must to save Frodo.  If not his life, then his soul.  He could not comprehend his gentle, laughing cousin as a wraith.  One of those monsters that had come at them on Weathertop – no, it was impossible.  He would drive the knife into his cousin’s heart himself rather than permit that.  Unbidden and unnoticed, a soft keen of grief burst from his lips.

Frodo was struggling more violently now.  Gandalf tightened his hold on the thrashing hobbit, then twisted his head over his shoulder towards the corner.  “Bilbo!  Call him, Bilbo!”

Bilbo stumbled to his feet and tottered over, almost unable to keep his legs under him.  Bereft of his elderly cousin, Pippin scrambled over to Sam, who hugged him.  Pippin began to weep, such anguish on his face as to tear the heart.  Sam wept silently, his eyes never leaving the tall figures before him.  His tears ran over his rounded cheeks and dampened Pippin’s hair as the tweenager ducked his head into Sam’s chest and sobbed.  Merry almost went to them, but he could not give up his knowledge of what was happening.  Bilbo caught Frodo’s right hand from Gandalf and clasped it to his breast, shielded in both of his.   “Come on, Frodo-lad,” Bilbo called in his ear.  Frodo’s head lashed towards him, but Merry could not tell if it was in response to the old hobbit’s words or simply in pain.  “You stay with me, Frodo Baggins.  Do you hear me, young hobbit?  Stay with me!”

Frodo threw his head back, mouth opening, and his chest expanded in a great gulp of air.  “He is fighting,” Elrond murmured.  “Such courage!  Talk to him, Bilbo.  Let him hear your voice.”  The old hobbit leaned closer and dimly Merry registered that he was beginning to tell Frodo some disjointed tale of Shire summers and picnics on the banks of the Brandywine.  He wept as he did so, but his quavering old voice remained clear and determined.

Elrond forced his hand in and down brutally.  Merry shuddered, his knees weak, and Bilbo closed his eyes and averted his face, unable to watch.  But his comforting voice continued without pause.  “Then you ran down to the river’s banks, Frodo-lad…” 

Merry saw the healer tense and his face twist in agony.  Perspiration gleamed on the high forehead.  “Aaahhh!” Elrond cried, anguish in his voice.  Then his hand was coming up, dripping with Frodo’s blood, and throwing something dark and tiny into the small metal bowl that Elladan shoved under his father’s hand.  The younger Elf snapped on a metal lid and twisted it, locking it down.  It was out! The shard was out!

Immediately the howling outside the shutters ceased and the icy coldness of the room dissipated.  Merry imagined he heard screams of rage and defeat carried on the air as a furious blast of wind rushed up the valley.  The abrupt stillness was eerie and the rasping breaths of those present were suddenly loud in his ears.  Elrond staggered back, holding his wrist with his other hand.  Elladan carefully set the metal bowl onto the table and caught him, easing his father down upon a divan.  Elrohir released Frodo’s ankles and knelt at his father’s side, catching up a towel to wipe the bloodied hands.  Aragorn moved quickly to Frodo, a still-glowing needle trailing thread in his hands.  “Mud everywhere,” Bilbo whispered, his voice cracking.  “In your hair, in your ears…”  Merry heard him gasp as Aragorn bent over Frodo. 

Elrond was breathing deeply, trembling, gasping breaths, a hand on Elrohir’s shoulder to steady himself.  “Give the shard to the smith to melt,” he instructed Arwen.  She took the bowl, her face white.  “Destroy also the bowl.”  She nodded and was gone from the room, the bowl and the evil it contained held at arm’s length.  Elrond shuddered, visibly fighting to master himself.  Using the arms of the chair, he pushed himself to his feet and stood shakily, then stepped forward to where his foster son worked on the hobbit.

“Estel?”  Bilbo’s chanted story faltered into silence at Elrond’s question and the old hobbit swayed on his feet.  Gandalf steadied him, slipping a hand under his friend’s arm to support him. 

“I have stopped the bleeding, Father, and the wound is closed.  Perhaps eight more stitches.  He is still breathing.  His pulse is much too fast, however, and – ah, no!”

* TBC *

Chapter Fifteen

“What is it?  What is it?”  Merry did not recognize his own voice.  It was high and shrill in his ears, the words blurred by fear and exhaustion.

They had no time to spare for his questions.  Elrond’s hands were cupping Frodo’s face as the Elf-lord leaned forward to peer into the fluttering eyes.  “Elladan, the sedative!  He is waking up!” 

The young Elf already had the earthenware jar unstoppered and was pouring the pungent liquid onto a cloth.  With astonishing quickness, Elrond snatched it from him and pushed the fabric directly over Frodo’s mouth and nose.   Frodo’s eyes were half-open but rolled back in his head, their brilliant irises visible only as sapphire crescent moons under the blue-tinged lids.  Merry saw the dark eyelashes quiver, saw his cousin struggle against the drug.  Frodo tried to turn his head away from the cloth, the cords standing out in his neck, but Elrond held his head down relentlessly, the cloth tight against his face.  With a small coughing whimper, Frodo subsided and lay still.

Bilbo chaffed the cold hand he still held anxiously.  “Frodo my lad?” he whispered.  “Frodo?”

“He sleeps, Bilbo.  Do not fear – it is only sleep.  Naught but healing sleep.”  Elrond handed the cloth back to Elrohir and bent to examine Aragorn’s stitching.   After a moment he stepped back and with a wave of his hand, motioned for the Ranger to finish his task.  “Well done, my children,” he said quietly.  Then his weary gaze turned to Gandalf.  “Mirthrandir?” he asked softly.

The wizard shook his head and released Frodo’s shoulder.  Merry saw that his cousin would wear a necklace of bruises where Gandalf had pressed him into the bed.  Gandalf saw the dark shadows too, blossoming even as they watched, and brushed his hand gently over them in apology and sorrow.  His staff, still barring shut the balcony doors, shuddered then drifted gently to the floor where it lay as if exhausted.  Gandalf rubbed at his face tiredly.  “The Eye is looking this way, but it had not time to focus on this House.  We were very lucky, Elrond.  Very lucky indeed.”

“Luck,” murmured the healer.  “I begin to think that greater powers than ours watch over this little one.”  He turned around and stepped back unsteadily to the divan, dropping himself into it almost gracelessly, his robes pooling at his feet.  “If he dies now, he will at least die free.  If he survives the night, I will have hope for him.”

“You mean he might not?”  This time Merry would not have his question put aside.  He was trembling, he realized, with tears still sliding down his own face.  It did not matter.  “But you got the shard out of him!”

The Elf-lord regarded him patiently.  “Yes, he is free of it, Meriadoc.  But the effort cost him dearly and has near finished him.  He has lost much blood and is very weak.”  Elrond stretched out his long arm and rested his fingers against the side of Frodo’s pale throat for a moment, obviously counting.  When he withdrew his hand and let it fall to his side, Merry thought he looked weary beyond words.

“I have tonics to lend him strength, which I will administer in a few hours, after his body has calmed and reclaimed some strength.  For now, the best medicine for him is peace, and rest.”  Elrond sighed and ran his narrow fingers through his dark hair.  It was limp and sticky with drying perspiration.  “Elrohir, would you and your brother please put some bricks on the hearth to heat?  Frodo must be kept warm, especially his left side.”  The Elf-lord’s gaze traveled to the shuttered windows, then to Merry.  “It is very late.  You would most help your cousin if you all left him to my care.  I will stay with him for a while, then one of my children.  Do not fear – one of us will be always with him.”

“I will stay also,” Bilbo declared.  It seemed that Elrond might object, his concern for the old hobbit written clearly on his tired face.  Bilbo returned his gaze levelly, refusing to acknowledge the tremors that ran through his aged body.   Faced with that indomitable valor, Elrond could but nod his permission.  Bilbo released his nephew’s hand long enough to grope for a chair but Sam leapt up from the floor as if catapulted, dragging over the chair before his old master’s hand could fasten on it.  Sam settled Bilbo into the chair tenderly, then stood quietly behind it as Bilbo caught up his nephew’s limp hand again, humming faintly under his breath.  Pippin followed slowly and sagged down at Bilbo’s feet, leaning against the chair legs.

“Sir,” Merry began slowly, “we’d rather stay.  Especially if … if we don’t know yet.”  Sam met his gaze and nodded shortly. 

Elrond looked at him sorrowfully.  “I understand that, Meriadoc.  But you cannot help here.  And Frodo will need you rested and able to care for him, come the morning.  He will no doubt have many questions for you and wish to speak with you at length.”  A thin, wry smile twisted the Elf-lord’s lips.  “If I may judge him by Bilbo and the three of you … I think you will need your wits about you when he wakes.”  This last was delivered with a spark of humor in the deep-set eyes, and Merry felt an answering smile tug at his own lips.

“But if he…” Merry started to say, but Elrond shook his head.  When he spoke again, his voice was kind.

“Master Frodo has come through flame and darkness, my friends.  Now that he is released from the evil that was dragging him into the Shadow, can you doubt that he will live?  Such a great heart would refuse to succumb to death now.  We will watch and ward him, this night.  Go to your rest, my friends.  I do not think he will die.”

“Listen to Elrond, Merry,” Gandalf murmured.  The wizard put his hands on the flat of his back and stretched, then walked unsteadily to the balcony doors and bent to catch up his staff.  Merry glared at it suspiciously but it seemed disinclined to movement.  Gandalf caught the direction of his stare and his mouth curled up in a tired smirk, then his expression softened when Merry shook his head in stubborn refusal of his advice.  “Merry, my lad … go.  Take Sam and Pippin with you.  I give you my word that I will stay with Frodo until he wakes.”

The younger hobbits looked at each other, Pippin raising a puffy and tear-stained face.  It was that more than Elrond’s words or Gandalf’s reassurance, more than the exhausted peace on Frodo’s face, that decided Merry.  He walked stiffly to Bilbo’s chair and kissed his elderly cousin, then reached over to squeeze Sam’s shoulder.  “Up you get, lads,” he told them softly.  “We’re going to bed.”

“Mr. Merry –“

“No, Sam.”  Merry was adamant.  “Frodo’s going to need you most of all.”  He tried to grin, aware of how ghastly it must have looked.  “You don’t expect Pip and I to keep him quiet, do you?”  

Merry was the last out the door, Sam and Pippin dragging themselves before him, almost too weary to walk.  Pippin was still hiccupping, overwrought and exhausted.  He would be asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, Merry knew.  Sam moved woodenly, as if all of his muscles were clenched, and Merry wondered if he would sleep at all that night.  What remained of the night...  A soft snatch of song drifted to him as he reached the door, and he looked back into the still room.  Elladan was moving quietly about the space, damping the candles and reducing the number of lamps to a more restful level.  Elrohir was gently sponging the blood from Frodo’s body, clean linens and towels folded at his side.  Those were the images that would stay forever in Merry’s memory whenever he thought of that dreadful night.  But foremost among them was the sight of their elderly cousin sitting by Frodo’s bedside, limned in light, singing quietly as he stroked his unconscious heir’s hand.

* * * * * 

Merry woke from nightmares with a pounding headache.  For a moment he struggled to remember the horrifying dreams, then let the ghostly imaginings recede into the dark recesses of his mind.  He did not need to seek after terrible dreams when far worse might greet him upon rising.

After a second thought, he amended that.  Elrond would have sent for them – he was sure of it.  Even if it were too late, Elrond would have summoned them. 

Merry turned his head painfully on an aching neck.  Sunlight streamed through the drapes and outside, bird song could be heard above the ever-present rushing of the great waterfalls.  Pippin lay snuggled on the small bed next to him, and Sam on his far side on one of the divans.  Merry spared a moment’s gratitude to Arwen for providing them this more hobbit-sized furniture … it seemed more friendly somehow.

He sat up and Sam’s eyes snapped open, unclouded by any trace of sleep.  Merry quickly raised a finger to his lips and gestured at Pippin.  Sam nodded and sat up slowly, scrubbing at his face with a grimace.  None of them had washed before falling into bed last night, and Merry added burning eyes and general stickiness and discomfort to his list of grievances against the morning.  But such minor things could wait.  He had to have word of Frodo.

Trying to be as stealthy as possible, Merry swung his feet to the floor and stood up.  Pippin snuffled and turned over, pulling the covers up over his head, but he did not wake.  Sam rose just as soundlessly and joined Merry at the washbasin.

“I’m going to check on Frodo,” Merry whispered against Sam’s ear.  “Will you stay with Pip?  I don’t want him to wake up and no one be here.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” Sam whispered back, “but it’d be better if you were here for the lad instead o’ me.  Let me go.”

“All right,” Merry breathed.  “You’ll come back as soon as you’ve word?”

“Aye, sir, that I will.”  Sam paused long enough to wash his face and hands and don a fresh shirt, then he was gone, pulling the door shut silently behind himself.

Merry drifted over to the window and pulled back the curtain just enough to look out.  It was very bright outside.  As Elladan had foretold, the day had dawned clear and beautiful.  Perhaps it’s an omen, Merry thought.   He stood with his eyes closed, the sun warm on his face, and rubbed his forehead, feeling the ache there start to recede.  A cool cloth over his eyes would help lessen the remaining pain.  Merry yawned, then rinsed out a cloth in the washbasin and returned to his bed, laying down with the wet fabric over his face.  It’s past second breakfast, he thought idly.  We haven’t eaten for near a dayI wouldn’t have believed it possible.  Just then, his stomach rumbled loudly and he pressed a fist into his midsection, trying to muffle the gurgles.


Merry hastily removed the washcloth and turned his head to find Pippin’s anxious face peering into his.  “Did I wake you, Pippin-lad?” he asked comfortingly.  His stomach chose that moment to make another unrestrained complaint, and Merry scowled and stifled a groan.

Pippin sat up and rubbed at his eyes.  “How’s Frodo?”

Merry followed suit, using the washcloth on his face.  His entire body felt gritty and he thought longingly of a hot, soapy bath.  “Sam’s gone off to see.  He’ll be back as soon as he knows.”

Pippin kicked the blankets to the floor and ran his hands through his hair, resulting in tangled curls that made his hair look like a half-plucked chicken had sat on his head.  “I can’t wait that long.  Let’s go find out for ourselves.”

“All right,” agreed Merry.  “After a wash and a change, that is.”  As Pippin dove for fresh clothing, Merry felt his heart lift.  It’s over.  It’s all over.  Frodo will be all right now.  Merry’s heart swelled as he thought of the Shire, of Buckland.  His parents.  He missed them with a pain that was almost physical.  Their families would be desperate for word of them.  There would have to be explanations, followed by apologies.  Probably followed by punishments.  Severe punishments.  Merry did not care. He would muck out his father’s stables for the rest of his life if he could just see their faces again.  We’ll be home soonAs soon as Frodo is strong enough to travel, we can go home…  Our part in this is finished, and I’m glad of it.  We can all of us go home.

“Merry!  Let’s go!” Pippin stood in the open doorway, more or less washed and dressed.  With the first carefree laugh he had uttered since arriving in Rivendell, Merry hurried after him.

The End

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