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Walking Near the Edge  by Budgielover

Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and 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.  My thanks to Marigold for her thoughtful comments on the early parts of this story.

 

Walking Near the Edge

Bilbo laid the silk ribbon across the page and closed the book, savouring the feel of the fine leather binding in his hands. He had risen early and spent the last two hours scouring Elrond’s Library for the driest tome of Elvish history that he could find. After much deliberation, he had settled on Legal Treaties of the First Age by an elf long-departed for the Grey Havens. Bilbo decided that pure embarrassment must have driven the author to take ship into the West.

He only hoped the book would be dull enough. Blowing some of the accumulated dust from the cover (an important factor in making his selection), Bilbo tucked the book carefully under his arm and hurried outside and down the stairs. He barely had time to visit with his lad before the Dúnadan was to come to remove Frodo’s stitches. Bilbo’s lined face tightened. Frodo was going to need him this morning, and whatever comfort Bilbo could offer. Even if it was only being bored senseless into sleep.

“How are both of my lads this fine morning, Sam?” Bilbo asked with forced cheerfulness as the gardener opened the door.

“Fine, Mr. Bilbo,” Sam replied. “Good morning to you, sir.”

Over Sam’s shoulder, Bilbo could see Frodo already seated on one of the divans, tucked in layers of blankets, a warm dressing gown about him. “Frodo my lad, you didn’t walk there by yourself, did you?” Bilbo worried.

“Good morning, Bilbo,” Frodo said, his wan face lighting with joy. Bilbo smiled, sending yet another thanks to the Powers above that had brought his boy back to him through darkness and danger. “No,” Frodo continued, sounding slightly put out. “Sam fears I might trip and shatter, I think. Really, Bilbo, I have walked a little—I won’t fall. But Sam insisted I lean on him for the vast distance between my bed and this chair.”

Bilbo handed the book to Sam and tottered over to his nephew. “Which shows that our Sam has more sense than you do, my lad. Elrond wants you kept still and quiet until you are stronger. No walking on your own until he gives you leave.”

“Yes, Bilbo,” Frodo said resignedly, but his eyes shown with warmth at Bilbo’s clucking over him. Then he plucked at the coverings. “Sam, must I be wrapped in all these blankets? I am too hot.”

“Lord Elrond said you were to keep warm, Mr. Frodo,” Sam returned austerely. “You just leave them blankets alone.” Frodo sighed and gave up.

“Did he have a restful night, Sam?” Bilbo asked.

“Not too good, sir,” Sam replied. “He was feverish all night. He was a-tossing and a-turning every time I looked in on him.”

“Maybe your constant checking kept me awake, Sam,” Frodo said wryly.

“Did he eat well this morning?”

Sam pursed his lips, his disapproval evident. “I’d say not, Mr. Bilbo,” he reported mercilessly. “He ate the eggs and strawberries, but wouldn’t touch the porridge or toast or sausages.”

Bilbo nodded, digesting this information. “And after? In the privy, did—”

Bilbo!” Frodo yelped, his face flushing.

“Just checking on you, Frodo-lad,” the old hobbit said, amusement glinting in his bright old eyes. “How else would I know how you are doing if I don’t ask Samwise?”

“I can answer for myself, you know,” Frodo remarked with some exasperation.

“He’s getting testy,” Sam informed Bilbo. “Snapped at Master Pippin when the lad offered to butter his toast. Suppose that means he’s feeling better.”

Fortunately, further discussion was interrupted by a knock upon the door. Bilbo did not miss the sudden apprehension on Frodo’s face. But his nephew greeted Aragorn with genuine pleasure—until he caught sight of the tray of small, sharp knives and bandages the Ranger carried.

Aragorn greeted the hobbits and lowered himself onto a chair next to Frodo. “Let’s have a look at you, my friend.”

Frodo dutifully leaned back against the cushioned arm, grimacing as he one-handedly tried to loosen the drawstrings of his nightshirt. Sam leaned over and did it for him. Bilbo moved closer and Sam drew up another chair for him, helping the elderly hobbit up into it.

The Ranger rinsed his hands in the basin Sam had prepared and shook his fingers dry. Gently and carefully he examined the sutured wound, probing the livid mark with his sensitive fingers. Bilbo grimaced—the shoulder was brilliant with bruising and the wound, though closed, was swollen and angry-looking. It looked much worse than had the cold, white mark marring Frodo’s shoulder when he had arrived at Imladris, unconscious and dying.

The stitches stood out like miniature hen-tracks against the pale skin, a neat row of tiny black ‘x’s marching across his nephew’s shoulder. Frodo clenched his jaw when Aragorn pressed gently against the skin to see how the healing was progressing. The flesh indented slightly but did not give much, and Aragorn’s face grew stern. Completing his examination, he leaned back in the chair and regarded Frodo, who looked back with a frown.

“Sore, is it?” Aragorn asked. Frodo’s grimace was answer enough. “Frodo, I want you to raise your arm, curl your hand tightly, and hold it straight out.”

Frodo did, though his arm began to quiver almost immediately. When Aragorn said nothing, perspiration began to bloom on Frodo’s brow and his arm began to shake noticeably. Aragorn watched both the shaking arm and Frodo’s face for some moments before reaching out to catch Frodo’s arm and guiding it down. “That’s enough. Thank you.”

“Ow!”

“What did that prove?” Sam asked.

“I wanted to test Frodo’s strength,” Aragorn replied absently. “Arm and hand both.” He pulled Frodo’s arm towards him, supporting the elbow so that the pain was not so great. With all three hobbits watching him closely, he turned the arm one way then the other, testing the degree of movement. “Flesh and muscle were torn when you were attacked, Frodo. More damage was done when we had to cut and cut again to find the shard imbedded in your body and remove it.”

He glanced up. Frodo was looking at him sombrely but it was Bilbo and Sam that drew his attention. Both had gone white.

“Hobbits are remarkable creatures,” Aragorn remarked, holding Frodo’s attention until Bilbo and Sam could recover themselves. “You are healing much faster than I anticipated, Frodo. It is time and past time for those stitches to come out.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” asked Sam.

“Yes … and no,” Aragorn replied, unrolling one of the long strips of bandage linen. “It is good because the healing is progressing so quickly. It is bad because the healing is progressing so quickly.”

“I hardly think this is time for riddles,” Bilbo reprimanded him.

Aragorn did not smile but amusement glinted in his eyes. “Frodo is healing so quickly that the stitches are being absorbed into his skin.” Bilbo and Frodo looked blank at this but Sam began chewing his lower lip in worry. “And that means,” Aragorn continued with a nod at Sam, “that I am going to have to press quite hard to be able to cut them and pull them out.”

“Press on them?” Frodo repeated, dread in his voice.

“And pull to get them out,” Aragorn repeated in a soft voice. “It is going to hurt, Frodo.”

“Cannot you just leave them?”

“No,” Aragorn replied. “They must come out. I will have to use forceps—they are too tight and small for me to merely cut the knot and pull them free.” He paused, looking into the pale face.

“Would you like me to come back a little later, Frodo?”

Frodo shook his head. “No. I would prefer to get it over with.”

“Well spoken,” the Ranger said warmly. “I have a liquid that will numb sensation to the area, but it will not block all the pain.” He uncorked a glass vial from the tray and poured a small amount on a bandage, using the tip to paint a bright orange line of liquid over the stitches.

Frodo craned his neck to look down at the line and shivered. “It feels cold. And the smell isn’t very nice.”

“It isn’t designed to smell nice,” the Ranger replied absently, returning the vial to the tray. “Bilbo, would you mind holding Frodo’s hand?”

The old hobbit moved opposite the Ranger and captured his Frodo’s right hand. The other was clenched tight against the cushions. Seeing this Aragorn said, “Frodo, relax. Tensing will make it hurt the more. Relax.” Frodo nodded but his grip did not lessen noticeably. With a sigh, Aragorn chose the smallest, sharpest scalpel and leaned over the pair.

Bilbo closed his eyes at the first thread of red against the white skin. Frodo inhaled sharply and a sound not unlike a whimper escaped his lips.

“Frodo,” Aragorn said, “breathe. Inhale. Frodo, inhale! Exhale. Good. Again.” Frodo nodded but did not speak, his lips pressed tightly together.

“Bilbo!” All three hobbits jumped. “You also are to breathe!” Aragorn said severely. “Almost done, Frodo,” he said a few moments later, exchanging the knife for a pair of tiny forceps from the tray. “You are doing very well.”

“Yes,” Frodo whispered, his face rigid.

Aragorn said nothing after that, but sought to remove the stitches as quickly as possible. He had cut each cross-tied stitch but now had to tug them free. The forceps pushed the flesh away from the thread, at times tearing the healing skin. It did not hurt as the cutting had hurt but when it was over, Frodo shuddered against Bilbo for a moment, then straightened and thanked the Ranger with all the courtesy of his gentlehobbit upbringing. Bilbo was proud of him.

The old hobbit realized that Aragorn was watching Frodo closely as the Dúnadan laid his knives carefully on the tray. Sam had already picked up the linen and was holding it ready. The bandages were applied in silence, wrapping around Frodo’s chest and up over his shoulder, around his back to his front, forming a thick pad to cushion the wound and keep it clean. That done, Aragorn looked from his patient to the bed, then raised an eyebrow at Bilbo.

The old hobbit grimaced and nodded. Aragorn nodded back. “Frodo,” the Ranger said, “let me help you back to bed. You should rest now.”

Frodo had closed his eyes, sagging back against the arm of the divan. Now he opened them, shaking his head. “Thank you, Aragorn, but I am fine.” His voice was very soft and strained, hoarse, and exhaustion was writ in every line of his body. “I think I will sit here for a while and listen to the birds.”

Bilbo and Aragorn exchanged a glance. Bilbo rolled his eyes at the ceiling and Aragorn stifled a smile, their long years of friendship allowing each to know the other’s thoughts.

“Frodo, let me carry you,” Aragorn urged. “It will be easier than trying to walk, even with Sam’s help.”

“Listen to him, lad. It’s a fine line between being strong and being silly. Let Aragorn help you.”

“Bilbo—”

“You don’t look so good, Mr. Frodo. Please let Strider help you.”

“Sam—” Sam stood up straight and folded his arms across his chest. He said nothing more but gazed at his master with a severe expression, brows lowered.

“All right! All right!” Frodo leaned back against the cushions and laughed, then gasped as the movement jarred his shoulder. “Please don’t make me laugh.” He smiled then, his eyes warming as he looked at them. “You all conspire against me … and I thank you for it. Aragorn, I would be grateful for your help. Thank you.”

Bilbo beamed. “That’s my boy.”

Aragorn gained his feet and stretched. Then very carefully, he slid an arm under Frodo’s knees and slipped the other around the hobbit’s back, careful that he did not press against the wound. He lifted, taking the blanket up with Frodo so that it trailed beneath him. Sam quickly gathered it up and held it out of the way so that it did not trip them.

Frodo gasped as he was lifted into the air, up to what seemed a great height to the hobbit. His right hand clutched Aragorn’s forearm and the Ranger smiled at him reassuringly, cradling him against his body so that Frodo would not feel so unsupported.

Walking with exaggerated care, Aragorn led the way with Sam holding the end of the blanket. With Bilbo following, the small processional moved to Frodo’s bed, where the hobbit was laid down against the plump pillows. Frodo released a sigh of relief as the transfer was made, and Sam and Bilbo echoed him.

Aragorn sank down on the edge of the mattress and gently caught the hobbit’s arm in one hand, placing a finger on the pulse-point of the underside of the wrist. After a moment he gently pulled open the top of Frodo’s nightshirt, looking for telltale pricks of red on the white cloth.

“You are to remain quiet, Frodo,” the Ranger said, retying the drawstrings. “I will return this evening. Elrond, also, will wish to examine the wound. Frodo, rest. No visits from those cousins of yours until mid-afternoon. I mean this.”

He paused, eyeing the hobbit. “A sleeping draught—”

“No thank you, Aragorn. I will be good, truly. And if I am not, I am certain that Bilbo and Sam will browbeat me into obedience.”

The Ranger raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I can see that you are being terribly used, Frodo. Bilbo and Sam must bully you unmercifully.”

“They do,” Frodo assured the man earnestly, eyes wide. Sam snorted and set about tucking in the blanket, having to cross around the foot of the bed to reach the far side to do so.

“He gets the tendency for dramatics from the Took side,” Bilbo commented.

“I do not—”

“And the tendency to argue from the Brandybuck side,” Bilbo continued, ignoring the interruption.

“I do not—what?” Frodo yelped indignantly.

“What does he inherit from the Baggins side?” Aragorn asked, enjoying the affectionate teasing.

Bilbo was silent for a moment. Then he reached out and gently stroked Frodo’s face, love in every brush of his fingers.

“Bravery,” he whispered softly.

* TBC *

Chapter Two

Frodo looked up into Bilbo’s face and smiled, then his expression tightened as the numbing agent Aragorn had applied to his shoulder began to wear off. He shifted uncomfortably, perspiration starting from his brow. Aragorn looked at him sorrowfully but he was wiser than to offer the sleeping draught again.

“Remember what I said, Frodo,” he remarked. “No visitors until mid-afternoon– evening would be better. I want you to stay in bed, no moving around, no activity. I will have report of you from Sam, so I will know if you follow my instructions.”

“He reports on me to everyone else,” Frodo groused, burrowing down into the pillows and pulling fretfully at the bedcovers. “Ow! Drat it!”

“Let me, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said hurriedly, tucking the blankets around his master. That task completed, he looked at Aragorn and tilted his head towards a still-grumbling Frodo. Aragorn stared deeply into the little gardener’s eyes for a moment, then arched an eyebrow. Sam nodded, his mouth firm. Aragorn soundlessly removed one of the bottles from the tray and slipped it to Sam, where it disappeared into a pocket.

“Call me if you have need of me,” Aragorn told them all as he paused in the doorway. “I will tell Elrond that the stitches have been removed. Until later, then.” He left quietly, taking the tray with him.

“Can you sleep, my lad?” Bilbo asked Frodo gently.

Frodo shook his head, then winced as the movement pulled at his aching shoulder. What had been a dull throb but moments before now burned fiercely. “No, Bilbo,” he replied in a subdued voice.

“Can I get you anything, sir?” Sam had asked, hovering anxiously at Frodo’s side.

Frodo did not shake his head again, but murmured, “No, Sam. Thank you. I’ll be all right in a little while.”  He turned his face into the pillow, shivering.

Sam pulled another blanket over his master, then looked at Bilbo in silent appeal. Bilbo appropriated Aragorn’s seat next to Frodo’s bed and motioned for Sam to hand him his secret weapon. “Do you mind if I read aloud for a bit, my boy?”

“Go ahead, Bilbo,” Frodo murmured, his face averted and his voice muffled. “It won’t bother me.”

Soundless as only a hobbit can be, Sam started closing the shutters and drawing the drapes, leaving only one window open to illuminate the room. Bilbo nodded approvingly and spread the book out on his knees, humming to himself until his eyes adjusted to the dimness.

His voice soft and low, drawling, Bilbo began to read, one eye on his nephew and one on the page before him. He yawned loudly, several times, hiding his amusement when Frodo at last repeated his yawns sleepily.

“That’s done it,” Bilbo murmured with satisfaction. Closing the book, he reached over to move a curl out of the closed eyes. Frodo smiled slightly in his sleep, the pain-lines at the corner of his eyes easing. Bilbo leaned back in his chair, well pleased with himself. “I used to read to you lads ‘til late into the night, remember, Sam? You would fall asleep in front of the fire. Frodo would fight to stay awake till the story ended, but drop off himself as often as not.”

“Aye, sir, I do. Good times, those were.” Sam’s smile faded as he looked around the room, thinking of the difference between those childish tales and the reality of undead Kings with poisoned knives.

When next Sam looked, Bilbo has slumped sideways in his chair, as sound asleep as Frodo. Smiling to himself, Sam collected the waistcoat he had been mending for Mr. Merry and settled himself under the window. He had almost finished sewing on the last button when a distant commotion intruded on the peace of the room. He stood quickly, hoping his ears had deceived him, but the distant howl was repeated.

With a snort, Bilbo awoke and peered about him. His gaze fell on Fordo and he relaxed and stretched in the chair, wincing as old joints popped. With a nod to Samwise, the old hobbit rose and tottered towards the door. There he paused, listening intently.

The commotion was becoming more audible, at least to sharp hobbit-ears. Muffled growls, yips, yelps, mutters and threats accompanied scuffling noises as if someone were being dragged down the polished halls of Rivendell, fighting every inch of the way. Bilbo stared at the door, startled, and did not see Sam roll his eyes in resignation.

“No! No! Nononono!” The last no was followed by a piercing shriek, causing both hobbits to grit their teeth. Frodo shot up in bed, eyes wide, then gasped, his right hand flying to his wounded shoulder. He blanched, curling forward, eyes squeezing shut in pain.

Bilbo was back to the bed with speed that belied his age, arms around his injured nephew. “Easy, my boy. Easy…” Frodo clenched his teeth against a groan, then slowly relaxed as the pain receded. Bilbo held him still, watching him in concern.

“All right there, lad?”

Frodo panted quietly for a moment, orienting himself. Then he nodded, grateful for the warm arms supporting him. Sam hovered over Bilbo’s shoulder, torn between helping Bilbo and giving those two what for. “All … all right, Bilbo,” Frodo managed after a few moments, just in time for his words to be overridden by another shriek and a “Let go, Merry!”

"That isn't-" Bilbo began, but Frodo contradicted him. "I'm afraid it is."

“I could tell them you’re sleeping, sir,” Sam offered. “Or that Mr. Strider said you needed to rest and weren’t to have any visitors.”

“Thank you, Sam,” Frodo replied regretfully. “But I’ve learned over the years that it always gets worse if you try to put them off.”

Something slammed against the door to the room, followed by knocking sounds like elbows hitting the hard wood. Or knees perhaps, Frodo mused. The squeal, however, was unmistakable.

Sam placed his hand on the door but before he could open it, it swung inward and two struggling forms tumbled into the room. The smaller form tore itself away from the larger and shot around Frodo’s bed almost before the others could blink. There was a sudden flurry of blankets and coverlet, then Pippin was firmly ensconced behind his cousin, sheltered by Frodo’s body. From that position of safety he peered over Frodo’s shoulder, just his bright green eyes showing above his cousin’s newly bandaged arm.

“You will not believe what this hobbit has been up to, Frodo!” Merry shouted, skidding to a stop before Frodo’s bed.

“I did not!” yowled Pippin.

“Lads, lads,” began Bilbo placatingly, waving his hands, but Merry was enraged enough to shout over him. “You did too! I saw everything, Pip!”

“Saw what?” Frodo asked, striving to calm Merry by example. Rare indeed were the times that calm, level-headed Merry let his emotions rule, but this appeared to be one of them.

“Pippin’s been making calf-eyes at all the people here and cozening them into giving him presents! And sweets!” Merry circled the bed, hands reaching to pull his little cousin from his place of protection. Pippin agilely scooted out of reach.

“Jealous?” inquired Pippin, nearly precipitating his own murder.

“It’s disgusting! He’s taking advantage of people, Frodo!”

Frodo looked from one to the other. Pippin was sniffling, obviously holding back tears. Merry was simply furious. “Bilbo,” Frodo said quietly, “would you please show Pippin the book you were reading me earlier? It was very … absorbing.”

“I’ll just ask for some tea,” Sam offered, more than happy to retreat. Frodo grimaced at him and Sam smiled commiseratingly, but pulled the door firmly shut behind him.

“Frodo—” Pippin begged, but his cousin was adamant.

“Go on, lad. I need to talk to Merry for a moment.”

Merry glared while Pippin slid carefully off Frodo’s bed, careful to keep as far away from his irate cousin as he could. Bilbo placed a hand on his arm and led him to the far side of the room, talking to him softly.

“Merry,” Frodo said quietly. “Have you thought about how we appear to these great folk?”

“What do you mean?” Merry left off glowering at Pippin’s back to glance at Frodo, startled.

“Elves haven’t had young ones around for a very long time, Merry. Think about that for a moment.” Merry stared at him blankly. “Thousands of years without hearing a child laugh. Without seeing a child’s face light up.”

Some of the anger left Merry’s face, replaced by a pensive expression.  “Aragorn grew up here, didn’t he?”

Frodo swallowed a smile. “Somehow I do not see Aragorn as a boisterous, light-hearted child. That he was a roguish child, I have no doubt. But carefree and … childish? No. Pippin is the closest they have had to a child for a long, long time.”

“But he is taking advantage of them!”

“Who is being hurt, Merry? The Elves are happy to have a child to spoil, and Pippin is happy to be spoiled. Let them.”

“But it’s undignified. He lets them pick him up and carry him about, as if he really were a ‘little one’ like they call us!” Merry paused, his face red with indignation. “Pippin isn’t a child, but he is deliberately acting like one!”

“He isn’t an adult either, Merry. I do not blame the Elves for falling in love with him. Pip has a brightness of spirit that lights the world around him. The Elves sense that.” Seeing that Merry was thinking now, Frodo pressed, “Pippin is a child to them. All of us are. Pippin’s just a little more forthright about it.”

Frodo stared over Merry’s shoulder. Pippin was leaning into Bilbo now, hiding his face in his hands. Bilbo looked at them helplessly, patting the tweenager’s back.

Merry frowned, contrition crossing his face. Regret. Crinkling his nose, Merry rolled his eyes in a self-depreciating gesture. “He’s had a hard time of it, these last few weeks. Poor lad. I shouldn’t have jumped down his throat like that for a little innocent coquetry.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Frodo agreed. “You can make it up to him later. Now, send him to me, please.”

Merry pressed Frodo’s hand and slid it under the coverlet. Hesitantly, he crossed to Bilbo. “Frodo says I should look at that fascinating book, Cousin,” he said softly to Bilbo. “Will you show it to me?”

Bilbo smiled at his young cousin over Pippin’s head, and released the tweenager with a final pat. “We’ll just be outside, Frodo. Call if you need anything. You’re not to try getting up, hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” Frodo replied resignedly.

“Peregrin my boy,” Bilbo continued, “I want you to take care of Frodo while I’m showing Merry this book.” Pippin nodded, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

“Pip,” Merry began, reaching toward him, but Pippin ignored him. “Pip … we’ll talk later, all right?”

As soon as the door had closed upon them, Pippin was back by his cousin’s bed, quivering as he fought back gulps. “Let it go, lad,” Frodo murmured to him. “Let it out.”

Pippin shook his head, then suddenly a great shudder racked his form. Choking and gasping, his wails muffled against Frodo’s chest, Pippin clung to his elder cousin and cried. Frodo grimaced when Pippin’s movements hurt him but he said nothing, merely holding the tweenager close.

Frodo waited until Pippin calmed, reflecting that it was very difficult to rub someone’s back when that person was sagging against him and he had a useless arm. At last the storm of weeping subsided, diminishing into hiccups and little rifts of coughs.

“All right, lad,” Frodo said at length, “care to tell me about it?”

Pippin was silent for long moments.. Then in a mumble that Frodo could barely hear, he said, “I thought you were going to die.”

Frodo tensed, then forced himself to relax when he felt a tremor run through the shivering form in his arms. “But I didn’t.”

“But I thought you were going to,” Pippin whispered. “You were so sick, and nothing I could do would help. Then at the Ford…” Frodo felt Pippin’s heart speed up, fluttering like bird wings against his chest.

“Shush,” he whispered. “It’s over, Pippin. Don’t think about it.”

“They chased you into the river,” Pippin murmured, his voice barely audible. “Then you fell off the horse. I couldn’t see you at all. Then we…” Pippin’s voice hitched and Frodo began rubbing the quivering back again. “We found you on the bank. You were so still…”

The thumping against Frodo’s chest increased, and Frodo murmured, “Shush, lad, shush…”

“Then Aragorn sent you away with Glorfindel. He wouldn’t let me go, too. I wanted to … wanted to be with you.”

“I didn’t know that,” Frodo murmured into Pippin’s hair. “Thank you.”

Pippin burrowed more firmly against his cousin’s chest and tucked his head under Frodo’s chin. “And when we first arrived here, they let Sam in to see you but they wouldn’t let in me or Merry. Not until later. Lord Elrond said it was important that you hear our voices, but we weren’t to upset you.”

“I’m sorry, Pippin,” Frodo whispered softly.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Pippin replied with a shaky laugh. Frodo nodded, content to let Pippin regain his composure before he spoke again.

“And what does all this have to do with the Elves?”

“Everything is so big here. I can’t even sit in the dining hall without cushions to lift me to the table. I don’t mind Strider—he can’t help being so tall. But everyoneandeverythingis bigger than me.”

“And people have been treating you like a little one, so you have been letting them?” There was no censure in Frodo’s voice, and slowly, Pippin began to relax.

“They gave us Elladan and Elrohir’s furniture, that the twins used when they were elflings. It fit us better. Then people just started giving me treats and little presents…” Pippin raised his face at last, distressed. “The head cook gave me a basket of boiled sweets. The whole kitchen staff helped make them.” Pippin raised his head, anxious that his cousin understand that he had not asked for the gifts. Frodo stroked his face comfortingly.

Pippin sighed, feeling more secure than he had for a long time. “It felt so nice to be taken care of, Frodo. It seemed to make people happy to give me little things. I didn’t think it was wrong.”

“Not wrong, Pippin, not wrong at all. I think you make the Elves very happy. Merry just didn’t understand, that’s all.” Frodo smiled as Pippin’s hair tickled his nose. “Brandybucks have such prickly pride, don’t they? It is a good thing he has you to remind him to unbend a bit.”

Pippin laughed, a quavery little chuckle, and knuckled his eyes. “I am not in trouble, then?”

“No, you’re not,” Frodo told him firmly. Pippin sat for a while, quiet, worn out by terrors faced and conquered.

“Thank you, Cousin,” he whispered. He reached into a pocket and pressed a handful of sticky sweets into Frodo’s hand.

“You’re welcome, Cousin,” Frodo whispered back, reaching past Pippin to drop the sweets onto the side table. He kissed the tweenager’s brow tenderly. “Send Sam back in, would you? I should like a cup of tea.”

Pippin climbed off the bed and Frodo smiled up at him, more weary than he cared for Pippin to see. He closed his eyes for a moment as the lad turned away. When he opened them again, his cousins were absent and his friend and his uncle were hovering anxiously over him.

“I’m all right,” Frodo said before either Sam or Bilbo could speak. “Is everything settled?”

Bilbo nodded and re-seated himself in the chair by Frodo’s bed, helping himself to one of the brilliantly-coloured sweets, popping it into his mouth. “Meriadoc is – oh, those are good - a smart lad, once you point out a few things to him. Poor souls, both of them. This has been terribly hard on them.” The old hobbit reached over to pat Frodo’s hand. “On all of us, my boy.”

“I’m surprised at Pippin, though,” Frodo mused. “It’s not like him to bottle things up inside himself so.” 

Sam shook his head. “Meaning no disrespect, sir, you didn’t see the young master while you were so sick. When we found you on the riverbank…” Sam swallowed suddenly, the terror of that memory not yet settled within himself. “Master Pippin attacked Strider when he wouldn’t let the lad go with you, sir,” Sam said quietly. “We were all mighty upset, but Pip… Walking near the edge, Master Pippin was.”

Bilbo nodded, agreeing. “I’m not surprised he has had this little outburst. I should have known all that weeping and clinging wasn’t like the lad. He hardly let Merry or any of us out of his sight. Never knew a Took who could stay that quiet for long. All that grief and terror and relief had to have some outlet.”

Frodo settled back against the pillows, tired, the ache in his shoulder forgotten in the excitement but seeming to redouble now. “I didn’t know… He and Merry seemed all right when I woke up, that first day. I didn’t know how it was for them … and Sam.”

Sam smiled then, tight-lipped, fears he had buried deep flickering in his eyes. His master was mending, he repeated to himself. Mending, and would be fine. But tears sparkled in his brown eyes and Sam turned away quickly, fumbling with the tray of tea and biscuits with which he had returned.

“I didn’t know,” Frodo repeated softly. “Bilbo?”

The old hobbit looked at him, truth and the wish to spare Frodo pain wavering in his gaze. “It was a close thing, Frodo-lad. We thought we’d lost you, more than once.” Bilbo paused. “If we had lost you … I don’t know how any of us would have borne it.”

Frodo closed his eyes, the pain-lines returning and starting to deepen. Exchanging a quick glance with Bilbo, Sam said, “Aragorn gave me that sleep-tea, Mr. Frodo. I think you should take it.”

Frodo shook his head, grimacing. “I don’t like that tea, Sam. Just the regular sort will do for me.”

Sam nodded and turned his back to Frodo to pour the tea. “Here, Mr. Frodo,” he said, handing him the cup and steadying his hand as Frodo accepted it. “Best you sit up. Let me straighten these pillows for you.” Then he started to fluff the pillows at Frodo’s back, forcing his master to lean forward and shelter his tea with his other hand to avoid having it spilled.

“Sam!” Frodo protested. “My tea!”

“Best drink it quick then,” Sam replied, not ceasing in his energetic fluffing.

Frodo drained the cup in a gulp. Then he blinked. And yawned. Sam caught the cup before it could fall from Frodo’s fingers as his master collapsed back against the pillows, face going slack, asleep in another breath.

“Fast-acting, that sleep-tea,” Sam said admiringly, replacing the cup on the tea tray.

“Good thing, too,” Bilbo replied, “or Frodo might have noticed your distraction. Might I have a cup of tea, Samwise? The other kind, of course.”

Bilbo peered critically at Frodo’s abandoned cup as Sam handed him one of his own. “Think you could slip those two young hobbits a cup of this?”

“Don’t know as Lord Elrond would approve of that, sir,” Sam said cautiously.

Bilbo snorted. “Give him a couple of weeks, Sam. He’ll be suggesting it himself by then.”

* TBC *

Chapter Three

When Frodo awoke, the room was silent and still. The bright sun had angled into long shadows, and motes of dust whirled and danced in the slanting rays. He stared at them for some time before really being aware of his surroundings; the softness of the bed under him, the warm sheets … and the smell of food.

He had missed lunch, he was certain of it. And his tea, from the way his stomach was trying to crawl up his backbone. Really, if he had known they were going to drug him and make him miss meals, he would have eaten more at breakfast. The realization that he had most certainly been sedated jolted him into indignant awareness.

“Drat! I’m pouring my own tea from now on.”

“Knowing Bilbo and Samwise, I would say that is a wise decision.” Frodo sat up in bed and squinted into the corner. Aragorn sat in shadow as Frodo had first seen him that fateful night in The Prancing Pony, long legs extended and crossed at the ankle, a pipe curling sweet-smelling smoke into the air. All that was missing were the patched, travel-stained clothes and worn cloak, hood pulled low over his face.

Frodo laughed ruefully. Aragorn set down his pipe and rose, arranging the pillows behind the hobbit’s back. “Where are Bilbo and Sam?” Frodo asked, leaning forward to allow this.

“I sent them out for some fresh air. They have hardly left your side since you arrived. How are you feeling, my friend?”

“It is ever so much better now that the stitches are out. It was the oddest sensation – they were pulling and burning at once. The shoulder is less stiff now.” Frodo raised his arms and rotated them carefully, grimacing at the slowness with which his left responded.

Aragorn observed this effort, noting the discomfort it cost Frodo. Unlacing his patient’s nightshirt to examine his handiwork, he pronounced, “This will be sore for many days. And you are not to get it wet for at least two days. Three is better. I will tell Sam.”

“No bath, then?” Frodo asked without much hope. He knew he had been bathed while unconscious, but did not care to dwell on that knowledge. The spit-baths Sam had administered since did not leave him feeling clean, and he thought with a pang of the huge bath of Bag End and even the stone-sided tubs at his little Crickhollow house. It seemed that his care-givers were determined to deprive him of what he desired most; leisurely baths, walks in the sunshine, and pipe-weed. Just then his stomach gave a loud grumble, and he added ‘decent hobbit-food’ to the list. 

Aragorn re-fastened the bandages. “No bath. Now, how about a nice, strengthening bowl of herbal broth?”

“How about a steak and kidney pie?” Frodo countered hopefully.

Aragorn laughed abruptly. “Your appetite is improving, at least. Perhaps I could convince Elrond to allow you a few crackers with that broth.”

Frodo sagged back, defeated. Affixing Aragorn with his best glower, he started to cross his arms–

“Ow! Drat it!”

“Let that be a lesson to you.”

“I would appreciate a little sympathy,” Frodo muttered, massaging his twitching arm.

“You receive quite enough of that from Bilbo and Samwise and your cousins,” Aragorn told him, “and also from Elrohir and Elladan, and my own fair Arwen.” He paused, mischief sparking in his eyes which was not reflected on his face. “She mentioned, by the way, that she quite enjoyed the task of bathing you, as you possess skin as lovely as any elf’s.”

Retreating to the door under a barrage of outraged shouts and pillows, Aragorn reflected that he would have to watch his step when Frodo was on his feet again. Well satisfied with himself, he took himself off to make his report to Elrond.

* * *

“He must exercise that shoulder if he is not to lose strength in it,” Aragorn related to Elrond and Gandalf half an hour later. Bilbo had joined them within moments, causing Aragorn to wonder if the old hobbit had posted the younger ones as look-outs. “It is only natural to favour it, but already he has lost dexterity and strength in the arm.”

“It hurts him to move, Elrond,” said Bilbo. “You should have seen him when the lads startled him and he shot up in bed–I feared he might pass out from the pain.”

Elrond shook his head, those ageless eyes sorrowful but adamant. “That response you describe, Bilbo, is indicative of healing without stretching the flesh. Allowed to continue, the sinews will shorten and atrophy, resulting in permanent crippling. He must exercise those muscles.”

“What can we do to make him use that arm, when it hurts him?” the old hobbit asked anxiously.

Elrond produced a small leather ball, dropping it into Bilbo’s out-stretched palm. “It is filled with sand,” the Elf-lord said as Bilbo examined it curiously. “Repetitive squeezing of it will strengthen his hand and the muscles of his arm.”

“It will do no good to order him,” Gandalf commented with a puff of his pipe. “Hobbits are stubborn and Bagginses the most stubborn of all.”

Bilbo cocked an eye at the wizard, then decided to ignore him. “He must have some reward for using the ball. Some type of incentive.”

“Other than throwing it at people who come to examine his bandages,” Aragorn commented. “I am all too familiar with the accuracy of hobbit-aim. Though that would exercise the arm...”

“If my lad is in a temper,” Bilbo pointed out, “it is because he is being denied the basic necessities of life. Frodo has never taken well to being ill, and then to be given broth instead of actual food, ordered to keep to his bed, and.…”

“It is for his own good,” Elrond replied. “I would not see him overtax his strength. But Estel is correct. He must exercise that arm.”

No one spoke for long moments. Then Gandalf smiled, his sharp eyes unfocused as he watched a whorl of smoke from his pipe waft into the air. “I believe I have it. But we shall have to proceed carefully.”

Elrond and Aragorn looked at each other in silence for long moments after the wizard had explained his idea. “It seems rather a dastardly trick,” Elrond remarked at last. “The Ring-bearer seems a hobbit of upright moral values.”

“As I said,” Gandalf said serenely, “Hobbits are stubborn, and Bagginses the most stubborn of all.”

“It will work,” Bilbo admitted. “Though perhaps you understand us a little too well for comfort, Gandalf.”

“Bagginses, at any rate,” Gandalf said, affection gleaming in his eyes. “And perhaps Tooks. Meriadoc and Samwise, however, will have to be watched carefully. Merry because he is intelligent, and Sam because he loves Frodo.”

“And the others do not?” Bilbo asked. “I warn you – do not trifle with Tooks.”

“I will manage young Peregrin,” Gandalf said.

“Then we are agreed.” Elrond swept the others with a stern gaze. “As long as everyone adheres to the arrangement.”

* * *

“Truly?” Frodo asked eagerly. A flush pinked his cheeks as his extraordinary eyes locked on what the Ranger carried. Aragorn thought the bedridden hobbit looked better than he had since that dreadful night on Weathertop.

“Did I not say so?” Aragorn teased, holding a glass jar of dried, dark brown leaves out of the hobbit’s reach. “Elrond says you are recovered enough to have it, as long as you do not smoke too much at once.”

“Bless Bilbo!’ Frodo murmured. “Longbottom Leaf, you said?”  Brilliant blue eyes regarded the jar longingly. “But I do not want to deplete his supply…”

The Ranger smiled.  “Do not be concerned about that, Frodo. I happen to know that Bilbo can always obtain more. You do not think he has gone without pipe-weed all these years, do you?”

“But how?” the hobbit asked.

“Oh, passing Rangers, wizards … simple trade. I wager there are many barrels of prime weed that have left the Shire without the populace knowing where they ended up.” 

“Give it here!” Frodo ordered.

Aragorn extended the jar. Frodo reached for it eagerly with both hands, then gasped as his shoulder pulled. He had not realized how heavy it was. In Aragorn’s hands, the jar seemed small but in his… Frodo realized that he could not wrap his hands around it. His shoulder stabbed again at the unaccustomed movement, this time agonizingly. His face paled and he sank back against the pillows, but the precious jar remained tight in his grasp. He hugged it to his breast then put his nose over the lid and took a full, deep sniff.

And scowled.

“I can’t smell anything!” Frodo complained, hefting the jar up to eye-level to examine the dried leaves closely. “There’s no aroma!”

Aragorn smiled as the hobbit gazed accusingly at him. “It is the jar, Frodo. Elves have refined food storage to a fine art. These jars keep food – or whatever is put in them – fresh for a long time. The lid is so tight that no fragrance can escape.”

Frodo was already examining the odd metal lid. The sides of the lid were ribbed, incised with fine lines that he traced curiously, running his fingers along the ridges. He tried to pry up the lid; when that failed, he tapped it against the small table by his bed. It did not budge.

“How do you open it?”

Aragorn kept his tone casual. “It unscrews.” Seeing the hobbit’s blank expression, he elaborated, “Hold the jar in one hand and use the other to turn the lid. Turn the lid and the jar in opposite directions.”

“Oh.” Frodo frowned at the strange lid, but now that it was explained to him, he could see how it worked.  Transferring the jar to his left arm, he grasped the lid with his right hand and twisted. 

“Ouch!” Frodo dropped the jar, his right hand flying to his opposite shoulder. A sharp, sudden stab had ripped through him, starting at the wound and slashing its way down to his fingers. His whole arm tingled. “That hurt!”

Aragorn retrieved the jar from where it had rolled off the bed and onto the floor. The thick glass did not break and, Aragorn knew, would not break. 

“Would you open it for me, please?” Frodo asked, massaging his upper arm – the area around the wound was too tender for touching.

“No.”

Frodo glanced up, startled. “I beg your pardon?”

“I will not open the jar for you, Frodo. Nor will Sam or Bilbo or those cousins of yours. Or anyone else. If you want the pipe-weed, you will have to open the jar yourself.”

Frodo’s expression of surprise was comical but Aragorn did not laugh. That jar had been closed and sealed most carefully – it would take long and dedicated effort to open it. Hours of twisting, pulling and pushing. Actually, the lid might not come off at all – the glue that Gandalf had applied was amazingly strong.

Frodo gaped at him. “You won’t…?”

“Nor will anyone else. If you want that pipe-weed, Frodo, you will have to unscrew the lid.”

With a growl, Frodo held out his hand and Aragorn placed the jar in his grasp. Frodo clamped it in the crook of his right elbow and tried turning the lid with his left hand. Aragorn watched dispassionately, though it seemed against all courtesy not to assist the struggling hobbit.

"This is impossible!" Frodo burst out. "You won't...?"

"I will not."

"SAM!"

 

* * *

An hour later, Sam peered around the door cautiously. The Big People had explained why his master would probably be furious, and had suggested that Sam occupy himself elsewhere while Frodo expressed his displeasure. Alarmed, Sam had flatly refused and would have bolted at once back to his master had not Mr. Bilbo taken him firmly by the hand and with Merry and Pippin looking on in appalled silence, explained that this was for Frodo’s own good.

“But Mr. Bilbo, sir! But–”

“But me no buts, Samwise. You will obey me in this, my lad.” Without looking around, Bilbo had reached out and fastened a hand unerringly on Merry’s collar. “And you, young sir, will also obey me.”

Merry, halfway out the door, choked, “But Bilbo, Frodo–”

“I will have your word on it, Meriadoc. And yours, Peregrin.” Pippin blanched at the use of his given name. Bilbo gazed at him sternly, and after a few moments of resistance, Pippin had given in and joined Merry in promising.

Sam, too, had agreed, though it went against the grain to allow his master to rant and rave and call for him without response. He writhed inwardly when he thought of what his old gaffer would say. And not one of those lordly folk had offered to accompany him when he eventually had to face Frodo.

His apprehensive gaze saw that Frodo had worn himself out and now lay in exhausted slumber, the sheets and coverlet of the huge bed in complete disarray. Papers littered the room, many crumpled or balled into little projectiles. The little leather ball, Sam saw, was lodged in one of the deep, elaborate carvings of the wooden beams overhead. One of the Big People would have to get it out. And the offending jar was still tight in Frodo’s grip, one arm hugging it as he slept.

Sam settled himself silently in a chair and picked up another piece of mending. He wasn’t looking forward to this, no, he wasn’t at all.

* * *

“I dursn’t, sir,” Sam begged, “please, please don’t ask me.”

“Sam, please,” Frodo wheedled, hunching slightly against his propped-up pillows and endeavouring to look pitiable. He summoned a brave smile. “As my dearest friend … please!

“They made me promise, sir,” said Sam miserably. “Mr. Bilbo and Lord Elrond and Mr. Aragorn. They made me give them my word.”

“Your … word,” Frodo repeated, his hopes of obtaining assistance from Sam fading. “They made you give them your word?”

“Aye, sir. Mr. Merry and Master Pippin, too. They made us all promise not to help you.”

Frodo grit his teeth. “All right, then. I shall do it myself.” His expression grim, Frodo pulled himself up into a sitting position and drew in his legs. As Sam watched in disbelief, Frodo manoeuvred the jar between his legs and grasped it with his knees. Grimacing, he leaned forward and locked his hands around the lid. “Right, then!” 

"Uuughh!"

Pretending to be unaware of his master’s increasingly loud mutters and groans, Sam went back to his mending. But his fingers were shaking, and he drove the needle deep into his thumb when Frodo suddenly threw the jar down on the bed so hard it bounced.

“I am going to go mad!” he announced. Then, most against character, he said a word which drew a gasp from the other side of the bedroom door. Frodo’s pale cheeks flooded with colour.

“And you needn’t go repeating that, young hobbit,” he said severely as Pippin’s tousled head peered around the jamb.

“Hullo, Sam,” Pippin said as he sidled in. Looking at Frodo with admiration, the tweenager continued, “I don’t imagine even Merry knows that one.”

“Do too,” proclaimed a voice behind Pippin. Frodo winced. “Da taught it to me when he dropped the ale keg on his toes.”

“He taught it to me, too,” Frodo confessed as Merry entered. “I believe it was an apple barrel, that time.”

“So I may say it?” Pippin asked interestedly.

“No!”

Sam coughed delicately. “Mr. Aragorn said you might be wanting an early supper, Mr. Frodo. They should be bringing it soon.”

“Good!” Pippin said brightly, sitting himself on the side of Frodo’s bed. “I’m starving. It’s been hours since tea.”

“If it’s broth, pour it down the loo,” Frodo said despondently.

“If it’s broth, I’ll eat it.”

“Or anything else, actually,” Merry commented, seating himself next to Pippin.

“All right, lads?” Frodo asked, looking at them closely. Pippin nodded. Merry did too, smiling his slightly wry smile.

“Is that it?” Merry asked, pointing at the jar. The four hobbits gazed at it as if it might suddenly rear up and strike at them like a snake.

“That is a filthy trick,” Merry said quietly. “We’d give you our pipe-weed, Frodo, but they–”

“Made you promise not to,” Frodo said grimly. Sam nodded, shame-faced.

A light tap on the door announced the arrival of Frodo’s supper. As Sam opened the door, Frodo sat up eagerly. A single elf entered, bowing to them gracefully before settling a small tray before Frodo. With another bow, the elf removed the cover and left.

Frodo stared down in dismay at the single bowl, from which arose an enticing but utterly non-steak-and-kidney-pie smell. Arranged by the broth were six small salted crackers.

 “This,” Frodo said softly but ferverently, “means war.”

* TBC *

Chapter Four

The hobbits glanced at each other uneasily. Merry’s eyes narrowed and Pippin’s face paled. Sam’s round face screwed up in a grimace. When Sam dared open his eyes again, Frodo was still sitting hunched and furious amongst the pillows, his face pale with anger as he stared down at his offending supper.

“Um … you don’t mean that, sir,” Sam ventured into the silence, retrieving the pipeweed jar from amongst the blankets and settling it on the floor near the head of the bed.

“I do,” Frodo snapped. “This is intolerable. I have had quite enough of being coddled and cushioned and denied the basic necessities of life. They won’t even let me take a decent bath–”

“Lady Arwen may give me a bath anytime she likes,” Merry interrupted, then winced as Frodo delivered him a smack on the back on his head.

“Ow!” Sidling out of range, Merry leaned across Pippin and helped himself to one of the soup crackers. “Still in a mood, is he?” he whispered out of the side of his mouth. Pippin nodded, gazing determinedly into the middle distance. Merry propped himself up with his free arm and nibbled at the cracker. Eyeing his irate cousin carefully, he asked, “Intend to declare war on Lord Elrond, do you?”

“He saved your life, as I recall,” Pippin interjected, appropriating a cracker for himself and eating it with relish. “At great personal cost. I don’t think he slept at all from the time you were brought in to the time he removed that poisoned shard.”

That brought Frodo up short. “…all right, maybe not Lord Elrond…” he mumbled.

“Bilbo, then?” Merry asked, polishing off another cracker.

Frodo sheltered his remaining supper with a hand as he glowered at them. “No, of course not Bilbo! Are you mad?”

“You must be,” Pippin replied, “if you intend to declare war on Gandalf.”

“Not that I’d mind seeing that,” Sam contributed, “what with him hauling me through the window by me ear. Back at Bag End,” he explained to the other two in answer to their surprised looks, “that morning he caught he listening ‘neath the window.”

“We owe dear old Gandalf for that, then,” Merry said thoughtfully, “as well as for not meeting us on the road as he said he would.”

“That was scarcely his fault,” said Frodo, gathering his wits at last. “He was being held prisoner–”

Merry waved a hand dismissively. “It should be most instructive to settle with Gandalf. Can he really turn people into toads, I wonder?”

“’Mettle not with wizards,’” Pippin intoned sonorously, “’for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ My, that’s true of Gandalf, isn’t it? Been on the receiving end of a sharp rap from his staff more times than I care to recall. What are we going to do to him?”

“Now just one moment,” Frodo objected, “Gandalf has been my friend for more years than you have been alive, young hobbit. And furthermore–”

“I suppose that just leaves Aragorn,” said Merry, riding over Frodo’s protest. “We owe him for dragging us through the Midgewater Marshes – I still think I hear buzzing at night. And itch in unmentionable places.”

“And for forcing us to march for hours,” Pippin contributed. “With no talking or rests or naps, and forcing us to eat while marching! Unforgiveable! Beamed me with an apple, too.”

“You ate it,” Sam told him.

“Well, I was hungry.”

“What shall we do to him?” mused Merry in a sing-song voice, staring up at the ceiling. Catching sight of the little leather exercise-ball lodged into a crevice of the carved beams overhead, he squinted at it then dismissed it with a shrug. “Something so horrible … so evil … that he may never recover. Something so unutterably wicked that it will strike fear into the hearts of hobbit-abusers everywhere…”

“Let’s eat his supper!” Pippin suggested enthusiastically.

“I hardly think making him miss a meal is compensation for all the misery he caused us, Pippin.”

“We could eat his breakfast, too.”

“He would just get more from the cooks. No,” Merry drawled, “it has to be something so … so heinous that it will teach Aragorn and all the Big People that hobbits are not to be crossed.”

“I didn’t actually mean–” Frodo began, beginning to feel genuinely alarmed.

“You can’t get cold feet, Frodo.” When Frodo scowled at him, Merry continued, “We have a long journey ahead of us. It sets a bad precedent, letting Big People get the upper hand. We have to teach them to respect us. Best we get that settled before we even set out.”

“And his lunch,” Pippin said dreamily. Seeing the others staring at him, he added, “What?”

“Pippin, will you please keep up?” Merry asked.

“It would be easier if that soup didn’t smell so good. If you don’t want it, Frodo, may I have it?”

“No!” Frodo hurriedly began spooning the cooling soup into his mouth, wondering what his fit of pique had set in motion.

* * *
“What we must do,” Merry said after Frodo had finished (cruelly, in Pippin’s opinion, refusing to share the remaining crackers), “is identify Aragorn’s weak points and act upon them.”

Sam lifted the tray from Frodo and placed it outside of the door before resuming his chair at his master’s side. “Don’t think Strider has any weak points.”

“Challenging him to single combat is definitely out,” Merry continued, ignoring Sam’s comment. “Not only is Frodo not fit for battle, but Aragorn would flatten him.”

“That might not happen–” Frodo began, stung.

“Don’t be ridiculous. His sword is taller than you are.”

“And just how did we decide that I would challenge him?”

“You are the one he insulted. Most recently, that is.” Merry kicked the sealed jar by Frodo’s bed and it fell to its side with a thunk and rolled against the wall. Frodo looked at it hopefully but the thick glass was unharmed.

“I wonder…” Merry began, staring at the jar.

“We promised, Mr. Merry,” Sam reminded him in a warning voice.

“It was an accident. You saw it was an accident. It would be an accident, too, if I just happened to kick it again hard…”

“Maybe you could accidently kick it so hard it would roll outside and off the balcony.” Pleased with his suggestion, Pippin bounced on the bed and looked at Frodo hopefully. “Even elven-glass couldn’t possibly survive the drop.”

“How would we get the pipeweed? Getting the blasted jar open wouldn’t help if we couldn’t get the weed. I’m not climbing down that ravine, and I’m not allowing any of you to do it either. Shame on you both for even thinking of breaking your word!”

“Calm down, Frodo.” Merry retrieved the jar and stood it upright, winding an arm around the lid and giving it an “accidental” twist. The lid didn’t move, not a fraction. “I’m not breaking any promises,” he said, sounding regretful. “This just reinforces the need to settle with Aragorn right now. We cannot allow this sort of behaviour to continue.”

Frodo settled back, rolling his aching shoulder absently. “We owe Aragorn our lives, Merry.”

“I am not disputing that. I am just pointing out that if we don’t nip this type of treatment in the bud, it will get worse and worse. But ...” Merry trailed off, his eyes on the jar but his mind far away. “We cannot outfight him. We must find another way.”

“Meaning no disrespect, Mr. Merry,” Sam put in, “but I’m not so certain that this is a good idea. Mr. Aragorn’s aim is to help, even if he is going about it all wrong.”

“We cannot let this pass, Sam,” Merry replied adamantly. “If we don’t draw the line now, it will be crossed our first day out from Rivendell and every day thereafter. Is that what you want?”

“No, of course not,” Sam mumbled, rubbing his hands anxiously. “But … Mr. Aragorn … we know what Rangers are, now. That was a bit of an eye-opener, wasn’t it?” Sam grinned, remembering the impact the revelation of Aragorn’s royal heritage had had on Elrond’s Council. “We know what that Man can do. We’ve seen him fight. We aren’t near his match at tracking or hunting. Or even telling stories. I wouldn’t dare even challenge him to a pub song contest.”

“You all are going about this all wrong.”

“Indeed? Care to enlighten us, Pippin?” Merry pulled out his pipe, then stopped as Frodo glared at him. He returned it to his pocket with a shrug. “Sorry, Cousin.”

“We can’t outfight, out-track, or outhunt him.” Pippin’s eyes gleamed in the approaching darkness. “That leaves what we hobbits excel at … subterfuge.”

“Speak for yourself, young sir!”

“Oh, don’t get all huffy, Frodo. What I meant was, we can’t hope to best him at what he’s good at–”

“Which seems to be almost everything.”

“–So we attack him where he’s least expecting it.”

“Identify what means the most to him,” Sam suggested. “Then go for that.”

“Lady Arwen,” said Merry immediately.

“You aren’t going to do anything to Lady Arwen,” Pippin said flatly, a dangerous edge to his voice.

“Of course we’re not,” Frodo said, giving his youngest cousin a surprised look. Pippin blushed scarlet and ducked his head, suddenly very interested in the pattern of Frodo’s coverlet.

“Aragorn has given us offense,” Merry declared, “and it is Aragorn who is going to pay for it. He’ll rue the day he decided to pull this dastardly trick.” Raising his head, Merry sniffed the air. The faint aromas of cooking which had been drifting just below their level of notice suddenly seemed much more prominent and enticing.

“About supper-time, isn’t it?” Pippin asked, sliding off Frodo’s bed and straightening his clothing. He followed Merry’s example and sniffed the air appraisingly. “Roast venison tonight! And I smell … mushroom and leek pastries, and … lark pies!”

“Amazing, isn’t he,” said Merry dryly.

“It’s a gift,” Pippin responded with smug modesty. “Are you coming, Sam?”

“Go on, Sam,” Frodo said when Sam would have demurred. “No need for both of us to sit here and stew.”

“And stew, heavy on the onions!”

“Thank you, Pippin. Go on, all of you. Have a nice supper.” Frodo watched them depart, suddenly aware of how large and empty his room seemed without them. With a sigh, he lit the lamp by the side of his bed and cast about for the book Bilbo had brought that morning, Legal Treaties of the First Age. Drat, it would be on the other side of the room.

Very carefully, Frodo pushed back his blankets with his good arm and wiggled his feet free. Lowering himself to the floor required some effort; in the end he pushed himself off the edge and dropped, catching himself with an elbow on the bed. Frodo froze, waiting for the sudden wave of red pain to recede. He looked down but could not tell if the movement had caused any bleeding. Gasping slightly, he walked carefully over to the book then struggled back into the bed with it.

Feeling rather proud of himself for retrieving the book (and for defying his over-zealous caregivers), he settled himself back into his pillows and sought the place where Bilbo had ceased reading that morning. He was asleep before he had finished the second page.

* TBC *

Chapter Five

“Shuuush!”

Sam slipped his arms through Merry and Pippin’s and drew them back, pulling the door tightly shut. There was no need really; as soon as the hobbits had seen that Frodo was asleep, they had begun to retreat. Pippin looked down at his arms, laden with puddings and custards and sweets collected from supper near spilling over, and sighed gustily.

“Fine time to go back to sleep. What shall we do with all this?”

“Ridiculous question, Cousin. Hand over that strawberry trifle.”

“I’ll have four or five of them apple tarts. Thank you.”

The fire had been lit in their absence, filling the room with warmth and casting the corners into shadow. Pippin spread out a cloth and doled out the remaining confections while keeping firm possession of his favourite, little balls of fried dough rolled in a white powdery sugar. Probably, Pippin reflected as he popped one in his mouth and a fine cloud of sugar wafted into the air, it hadn’t been the best idea to stuff every available pocket full of the sugary balls.

“He must really be tired,” Merry commented with a jerk of his head toward Frodo’s bedroom. “Frodo can usually smell food right through a closed door. From the other end of the smial. Right through the Hill, if Bilbo was baking frosted sticky-buns.”

“Takes it out of you, having stitches removed,” Sam replied, licking crumbs off his fingers. “Then that business with the pipe-weed. Nasty, rotten trick, that was.”

“Maybe I’d best check on him,” Pippin murmured, suddenly anxious. Wiping white-dusted fingers on his jacket, the tweenager cracked the bedroom door and peeked in. Moonlight striped the huge bed, creeping in through the shutters and lending the quiet room an unreal air. Frodo lay on his back, his face turned towards the door, dark hair straggling into his closed eyes. His hands lay upon his breast, rising and falling almost imperceptivity with each breath. As Pippin watched, Frodo sighed in his sleep, licking his lips before his face relaxed again into untroubled slumber.

Leaning against the jamb, Pippin looked past Frodo to the darkening night. The clouds were thickening and there seemed a heaviness in the air. It would rain tonight. He shivered, rubbing his arms through his jacket.

Behind him, Merry and Sam exchanged a significant look. Merry set aside his napkin, reaching towards his cousin. “He’s fine, Pip. He’s just sleeping. Come sit down.”

Closing the door, Pippin drifted back to them. “Don’t you think it odd that he sleeps so much?” he whispered, a note of worry in his voice.

“Well, he didn’t get much rest on the way here,” Merry replied logically as Pippin wandered past him, too restless to sit. “Being unconscious or half-aware isn’t rest, I suppose.”

“And he’s had a hard day,” Sam put in. He paused, thinking over Pippin’s words. “But he does seem to sleep a lot…”

“And,” another voice put in, “it is better so.”

Hobbits pride themselves much on their ability to move unseen and unheard (when they choose), but we have nothing on Rangers, Merry thought with a grimace, swiping at the half-eaten strawberry he had just dropped on his lovely yellow waistcoat. Really, Big People that light-footed shouldn’t be allowed.

“Sit, gentlemen,” Aragorn said, motioning them to retain their seats as Pippin escorted him in. “I merely wish to check on our patient. I assume he is sleeping?”

“Soundly,” replied Pippin. “We brought him afters from supper, but he was asleep.”

“Did you?” Aragorn asked, looking around the room then back at Pippin. Somehow a puff of sugar had settled on one of his eyebrows, giving him a surprised look.

“Well, we couldn’t let them just sit.” Pippin patted at his pockets, looking for an overlooked sugar ball to display as evidence. Sugar rose into the air and drifted back down on him.

“Why do you assume that Frodo is sleeping?” Merry asked as Aragorn crossed the room to Frodo’s door and looked in.

The Ranger glanced back at them, pulling the door shut before he spoke. “Have you not wondered,” he said as he took a seat, “why Frodo is being provided only soup for his supper?”

“Well,” Merry began slowly, glancing at the others, “a heavy dinner might not sit very well before bed. Frodo has very odd dreams, sometimes. And the soup here is wonderful… and the gaffers and grammers all say soup is very good for you when you’ve been ill…”

“Yes,” said Aragorn, taking a chair, “and though I have known Frodo but a short time, it has come clear to me in that short time that by withholding solid food from him, he will be all the more eager for it when he is well enough to have it.”

“That seems rather underhanded,” Merry argued half-heartedly.

“We pressed Frodo to eat to recover his strength,” Aragorn said, raising a finger in emphasis, “with the result that he refused almost everything set before him. I have since,” he continued, “learned more of hobbits, or should I say, Bagginses. Therefore, I shall reverse our strategy and withhold food from him. If he cannot have the food, then he will want it. And he will eat.”

“Cousin Frodo has a contrary streak,” Pippin agreed with a nod. “It’s his Brandybuck blood. We Tooks are much more sweet-natured.”

Sam choked, mumbling something about a “wee bit of apple” caught in his throat when Pippin looked at him inquiringly. Merry, however, was concentrating on Aragorn. “So,” he said slowly, “you’ve been … priming his appetite? Pushing soup on him because of its restorative qualities was a blind, then?”

“Not at all,” Aragorn told him, leaning back and crossing his long legs before him. “Soup is very nutritious. It is gentle on the stomach … more importantly for Frodo, all sorts of liquids can be disguised by its flavour.”

“All sorts of—” Sam began, but interrupted himself. “You aren’t!”

“I might point out that you, Master Samwise, seemed to feel quite differently when you poured him a cup of tea this afternoon.” Sam scowled, a flush spreading over his face as he glared at the floor.

“What are you two talking about?” demanded Pippin, looking from Sam to Aragorn in perplexity.

Aragorn merely raised an eyebrow. “Frodo needs to rest. His evening meal ensures that.”

“You are giving him things in the soup!”

“Tonics and soporifics,” agreed Aragorn in a matter-of-fact voice. “Mr. Baggins is so much easier to deal with when he is in no condition to complain, protest, or threaten his caregivers.”

“Now that’s not fair!” Merry exploded, lowering his voice hurriedly with a glance at the door.

“He threw the leather ball Elrond had made for him at me today,” Aragorn commented, drawing out his pipe.

“Good for him,” Merry replied, glaring at the pipe, the memory of the un-openable pipe-weed jar looming before him. “Though he obviously wasn’t aiming at you. If he had been aiming at you, he would have hit you.”

“Yes,” agreed Aragorn with infuriating calm. “As much as I wish to encourage Frodo in exercising that arm, I think sword-practice would be of more benefit. Or bow-work, or some other practice with a weapon so that he will not be so defenseless on our journey. We will be beset by many dangers, and you hobbits will have to defend yourselves if your guardians cannot.”

“Guardians?” Merry repeated blankly.

“Myself, of course,” Aragorn explained. “And Legolas and Gandalf and Boromir and Gimli. We will see you come to no harm.” Aragorn returned the pipe to his pocket, having evidently decided against a smoke. He stood and stretched, misinterpreting the looks of horror upon the hobbits’ faces.

“Don’t worry, my friends,” Aragorn said, pausing by the door to give a startled Pippin a pat on the head. “We will not let anything hurt you. We will take care of you.”

The hobbits stared at the closed door. “Did he just pat me on the head?” Pippin asked in disbelief.

“That arrogant … that arrogant … Man,” Merry said through clenched teeth. “He will ‘take care’ of us, will he?” He drew in a deep breath and let it out in a hiss. “Still having qualms about teaching Aragorn a lesson, Sam?”

“Get him,” said Sam.

* TBC *

A/N: Have you ever wondered why the Elves’ gift to Frodo, his lovely green suit, is never mentioned again?

Chapter Six

“Get whom, Sam?”

The three hobbits froze, Merry in mid-mutter. They stared mutely at each other, then turned to face the bedroom door. Frodo stood leaning on the threshold, supporting himself with a hand on the jamb and looking at them curiously.

“Mr. Frodo!” Sam exclaimed, “You heard what Mr. Bilbo said! You’re not to be walking by yourself!” He leapt to his feet but Pippin was nearer, and quicker.

Merry saw apprehension flash across Frodo’s face but it was gone before he thought Pippin saw it. Yet perhaps Pippin had, for he slowed his headlong rush and carefully slid under Frodo’s good arm, capturing his hand and wrapping it over his shoulder with exaggerated care.

“It must be dreadful to get old,” Pippin remarked conversationally, looking at the others with mischief sparkling in his eyes. “It is a good thing my poor, elderly creaky cousin has me to guide his faltering steps.”

“I’ll ‘poor, creaky’ you, my lad,” Frodo growled, but he accepted Pippin’s support to Merry’s side.

“Crotchety, too,” Pippin observed. “I’ve heard the next thing to go will be the mind.”

“Too late, then,” Merry commented, making room for Frodo to lower himself cautiously onto the divan.

“Sam,” Frodo complained, “are you going to sit by and let these disrespectful hobbits abuse me?”

“Abuse you in what way, sir?”

“You too?” Frodo asked tragically. When no one looked repentant, Frodo gave up the pretence with an exaggerated sigh. “All right, lads. I’m settled. Now, what were you talking about with such grim expressions?”

“Shouldn’t you be asleep, Frodo?” Merry temporized.

“I was asleep. I’m awake now. I thought I heard Aragorn’s voice.” Frodo looked around the room. He blinked at the fire and his friends noticed that his pupils were extremely dilated, even more than should result from the dim light in the room. “Is he here?”

“No,” Merry replied tersely.

“He’s in the Hall of Fire,” Pippin added. “I’ll get him, shall I?” He tried for a fast retreat, only to waver under Merry’s merciless gaze.

“It’s not that late. Why aren’t you all at the Hall?” Frodo asked as Pippin sank into a vacant chair.

“The Elves were singing, and we didn’t know the words,” said Sam wistfully. “It was beautiful to hear, but well … without knowing what they were saying…”

“Oh. Bilbo would have translated for you, had you asked him. But I am happy to have you to myself. So… Sam, I repeat my question. Get whom? And Pippin …” Frodo extended a finger and swiped at Pippin’s face, coming away with a line of white, “why are you covered in…” He sniffed his finger then licked it, “Sugar?”

“Have an apple tart, Mr. Frodo?” Sam asked desperately, producing one he had squirreled away. “I saved one for you, knowing as how you like them.”

“Bless you, Sam! The ones with the crunchy toasted bits? Hand it over!”

With Frodo successfully diverted, talk moved to the doings of the hobbits’ day. Frodo listened, his expression wistful as he heard of the many wonders he had yet to see and asked many questions, until at last he sagged against the back of the divan and yawned.

“I am sorry, lads, but I’m so sleepy… I can’t seem to stay awake. Would you mind very much if I went back to bed?”

“We’ll talk in the morning, Cousin,” Merry assured him.

“I did think Aragorn would be coming to see me again,” Frodo fretted, leaning more heavily against Merry. He yawned again, starting to stretch both arms out automatically. “Ow! Drat it!”

“Silly hobbit,” Merry scolded, reaching across to cradle Frodo’s injured arm. A glint of silver chain caught his eye and beneath that, a hint of gold. Merry deliberately forced his gaze to Frodo’s face. “You look tired, Cousin. Go to bed. If you are good, maybe we will bring you more sweets.”

“Very amusing, Merry. I do wish Aragorn would come by…”

“Why?” Pippin asked. “You will see him tomorrow.”

Frodo flushed, colour tinting his pale cheeks. “I …er… I owe him an apology, I’m afraid.”

“What did you say, Cousin?” Pippin asked with cheerful maliciousness.

“I… I called him… Well, never mind that. After the trick with the pipe-weed…and, well, he said that…” Frodo trailed off, his colour deepening. “I’m afraid I insulted his ancestors, too. And any future heirs.”

“Thoroughly covered the topic, then?” Merry contributed. “Good!”

Frodo leaned against Merry, hiding his face for a moment in Merry’s shoulder. “It was unforgivable. I wasn’t raised like that. Bilbo would be mortified.” He looked at them again but continued to nestle against Merry. “Aragorn has been the soul of kindness and courtesy, not to mention saving all of our lives. He didn’t deserve to be called a–”

“A what?” Merry prompted.

Frodo drew back and looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Oh no, young hobbit. I’m not adding to your language skills with words like that.”

“I probably could guess,” Merry declared airily. “Dear Cousin Bilbo has been teaching me all manner of new words. Did you know that, in Elvish, a most expressive curse‒”

“Merry! Not another word! And I’ll have a few words for Bilbo, too, if he’s been teaching you to swear in El‒”

“Calm down, Cousin,” Merry soothed, “Bilbo hasn’t been teaching me. I just misprounced something and he turned all red. I really don’t know what I said.” But I intend to find out–might come in useful, Merry continued the thought unsaid.

Pippin grinned, enjoying the deliberate aggravation Merry was causing their elder cousin. It had been so long since they had dared banter with Frodo… For so long it seemed their every word, their every thought, had been focused on keeping Frodo alive long enough to reach Rivendell. That cold knot of terror inside him after Frodo’s wounding had yet to dissolve completely, but exchanges like this morning’s purging and teasing like this were helping.

“You ought to go back to bed, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said. “You’re near asleep on your feet.”

“All right.” Frodo yawned again. He shifted to rise, but sank back against Merry. The other three watched as his long-lashed eyes drifted shut and he sagged bonelessly against his younger cousin, his head cradled on Merry’s shoulder, sound asleep.

Merry caught him before he could slide to the floor. “That settles it. Look at him! I’ll pour every bowl of soup down the privy and throw every bite of food into the ravine before I let Aragorn dose him again.”

“Aragorn said it is for his own good,” Pippin whispered anxiously.

“It’s over,” Merry hissed. “No more drugging him.” He jiggled his cousin carefully and Frodo’s head waggled on Merry’s shoulder. “Frodo dear, wake up. It’s time to go to sleep.”

“Hmmmm?”

“Bed,” Merry insisted. Frodo mumbled something and slid forward, head drooping. Quickly adjusting his hold, Merry guided the limp form down on the divan and settled Frodo’s head into his lap. A faint snore drifted up to him.

“I’ll wake him.” Pippin stiffened a forefinger and leaned over Frodo, but Sam’s hand fastened on his wrist. Pippin looked up at him, eyebrows raised.

“You know The Rules, Mr. Pippin,” Sam told him sternly.

“No poking,” Pippin recited regretfully as Sam released him. “No tickling, tugging off covers, or nose-pulling. No pouncing or prying open eyelids. No throwing objects at him from across the room.” Frodo gave a snort that sounded almost like agreement and Sam looked down at him, an affectionate smile on his lips.

“I could blow in his face,” Pippin offered. “Puffing air on him is allowed.”

“He’ll swat you if you do. And seeing how he’s a-laying on Mr. Merry, he’d use his bad arm then he’ll be awake all right.”

“Right. Good thinking, Sam. Merry, you wake him.”

Merry wound a finger around one of Frodo’s dark curls. He tugged gently, watching with amusement as Frodo’s face crinkled up in annoyance.

“Hmm! Get … off…hm…”

Merry gave up and began stroking Frodo’s hair. Frodo sighed, a faint smile crossing his lips. In sleep, his face was pale and relaxed, his eyes moving slightly under closed lids. He looks so young, Merry thought, even though I know he isn’t. But he looks scarcely older than Pippin. Bestowing his sleeping cousin a long-suffering glance, Merry looked up at Sam. “Do you think we can get him into bed?”

“Daren’t try lifting him by that arm. Chair-carry?”

“Only way, I suppose, unless we want to get one of the Big People. And I’m not asking any favours of Aragorn, Pippin, so you can just forget that.” Pippin closed his mouth, brow furrowed.

“Hmm? Aragorn?”

“No, Frodo. He’s not here.” Merry looked at the other two and grimaced, lowering his voice further. “I could have told Strider there were better ways than trying to trick him. Our dear Longshanks is long overdue for his lesson. Help me get him up, will you?” With infinite care, Merry and Sam eased Frodo into a sitting position and propped him against Pippin while they stood and grasped each other’s wrists to form a seat. With Pippin whispering advice and cautions, they slid the “chair” under Frodo and lifted him, leaning him against Sam.

“All right, Mr. Merry?” Sam whispered, managing his half of Frodo’s weight with a great deal more ease than the other hobbit.

“All right. Good thing we don’t have to carry him far, though.”

“I’ll get the door.” Pippin darted ahead of them and had the bedroom door open by the time they reached it. Walking carefully, the hobbits turned sideways and sidled Frodo in. Pippin followed, hands half-raised, ready to assist them if Frodo stirred. When they reached the bed, Pippin pushed aside the huge volume he found there and patted the pillow.

Frodo did not stir. He curled up on his uninjured side as they slid him onto the bed and Pippin pulled the covers over him. “Good night, Cousin,” he whispered, kissing him lightly on the temple. “Sleep safe.”

While Merry shook life back into his arms, Sam reached down and caught up the jar of pipeweed. Pippin shouldered the book. “Leave the door open a bit,” Merry whispered as they left. “I want to hear if he stirs.”

“He don’t weigh hardly nothing,” Sam muttered as they resumed their seats. He turned the jar over and over in his hands but did not look at it. “I don’t agree with this giving him nothing but invalid food. That might be so for Men and maybe Elves, but a hobbit needs to eat. Aragorn don’t know everything about hobbits.”

“He has a point, though,” Pippin tried to put in. “You know how Frodo can be if someone tells him he has to do something. Bagginses are dreadfully stubborn that way.” Merry glowered at him and Pippin decided to keep his and Brandybucks comment to himself.

With nothing else to do, Pippin decided to continue his idle wanderings about the room. The room he shared with Merry was not as large as Frodo's, though it had an equally nice balcony. Poking his head out the balcony doors, he looked out into the night. Across the ravine, lights on the far path were shining like earth-bound stars. The rain had not yet begun but he could feel it coming; tightness and a weight in the air. He sighed and went back in.

Coming across Frodo’s green suit lain neatly over a chair (Sam’s doing, no doubt), Pippin shook it out the Elvish-made suit and held it up to himself in front of the standing mirror in the corner.

“Didn’t Frodo look fine in this,” he mused, turning from side to side to admire the effect. The green cloth had a subtle shimmer to it, like leaves turning in the breeze. With the weight Frodo had lost, it was only a little too large for his smaller, shorter cousin. Pippin hitched himself up on his toes, admiring his reflection in the glass. “I wish Pansy Mossybanks could see me in this… I wonder if he would lend it to me sometime?”

“You’ll have to grow a bit, Mr. Pippin,” Sam advised.

Pippin turned back to the mirror and smoothed the fabric, enjoying the softness of the cloth sliding over his hand. He left a little trail of sugar on the cloth and brushed at it quickly, managing only to smear it. “Miserable stuff clings to everything,” he complained with a martyred sigh, pulling out a handkerchief to remove the fine, clinging powder properly. Holding the suit up again, he turned to the side to admire himself and caught another reflection in the mirror.

“Why are you looking at me like that, Merry?”

* * *
“Now, do you know what to do?” Merry asked. “There isn’t much time.”

Samwise and Pippin looked at each other. “What if the kitchen staff won’t help me?” Pippin asked.

“Just smile and be your usual charming, endearing self,” Merry ordered.

“But Merry, you told me–”

Merry ground his teeth. “Just do it, Pip. All right?”

“But you said I wasn’t to‒”

“All right! I already apologized, Pippin. Do you want me to do it again?”

“No. I’ll do it.”

Merry nodded in satisfaction. “Sam?”

“You’re sure no one will get hurt, sir? Including Mr. Pippin?”

“I’d like to be certain of that, too, Merry.”

“If we time this right, we can have everything back in place before anyone notices.” Merry smiled, his eyes lighting with a malicious glint. “Just get what we need and meet me back here in twenty minutes. Sam, before you go, will you fetch me those tools.” Merry smiled. “Aragorn will rue the day he decided to give offense to hobbits.”

* * *
“Hold still,” Merry ordered.

“You stuck me with a pin! Sam, he stuck me with a pin!”

“He wouldn’t of, Mr. Pippin, if you hadn’t been a-wiggling like that.”

“I wasn’t wiggling! I was trying to avoid being stuck with a pin!”

Merry snipped off a green thread and stepped back. “Well, will he pass, Master Samwise?”

Sam sucked thoughtfully at his lower lip. “In dim light. As long as he don’t let anyone get a good look at him.”

Frodo’s lovely green suit did not fit so well on his younger, smaller cousin. Merry had addressed this problem by stuffing Pippin into a second shirt followed by two waistcoats. Frodo had lost a great deal of weight after the attack and his recovery, but the resemblance was there.

“And you got to do something about his hair, Mr. Merry. It’s too light.”

“Here.” Merry pulled the glass chimney off two of the lamps and pulled out his belt knife to carefully scrape at the wicks. “Lampblack. We’ll just … Sam, would you pour out what’s left in the teakettle? We’ll … scrape out the leavings. Good. Mix this … a little more tea … Here, Pippin. Rub this in your hair.”

“I don’t want to rub that nasty stuff in my hair. It smells!”

“Never mind that. It will darken your hair. Rub it into your foothair, too.”

Glowering, Pippin dipped his hand into the bowl and raked the dark substance through his hair. His brown-bronze curls darkened and drooped. “Happy now?”

“Better,” Merry said with a nod. “It is almost the same colour as Frodo’s.”

“Strider’s a right hand at measuring – the game will be up if Mr. Pippin don’t stand as tall,” Sam said thoughtfully.

“I can’t do anything about that,” Pippin complained, tugging at the layers of clothing. “All this is hot. I’m sweltering.”

“Good,” Merry said mercilessly. “The powder will stick better if you’re a bit wet.”

“He’s going to be a lot wet if we don’t time this fine,” said Sam with a glance out the balcony doors. Lightening danced amongst the darkening clouds and thunder rolled in the distance. “We haven’t much time, sirs.”

Merry herded them out onto the balcony and climbed up on a chair, steadying himself against the wall. Pippin closed his eyes and raised his arms to shoulder-level. Merry lifted a large, laden flour sifter above his head and began to turn the crank. Sam, meanwhile, finished pouring a stream of white powder into the fireplace bellows, stuck the plug back, gave it experimental pump, and began to blow out an even spray of fine white powder onto Pippin.

“Don’t sneeze, Pippin,” Merry muttered, fighting his own impulse to do so.

“Couldn’t we have used sugar? It would stick just as fine and sugar tastes a lot better than flour.”

“Close your mouth and you won’t taste it.” Merry eyed the white figure critically and held the sifter over Pippin again. “And the kitchens might have balked at giving you that much sugar. Now turn around and let us do your back.”

At last the hobbits stepped back. Before them stood an unearthly apparition, a pale, dark-haired figure in a suit of muted green, an ghostly figure in the flickering lamplight.

“Oh my,” Sam breathed, awe on his face.

“It is rather good,” Merry whispered.

“I want to see what I look like.”

“Sam, would you please angle the mirror…” The mirror which had previously stood in the corner was now leaning against the balcony balustrades, its supporting legs removed. Sam lifted it and manoeuvred it around until Pippin could see himself.

“The mirror’s fairly light,” Sam commented briefly. “Best we get on with it.”

“It itches,” Pippin complained, trying not to open his mouth very much. “And I’ve got flour up my nose.”

“You can have a bath when we’re done,” Merry told him. “Now, are you sure you know what to do?”

“Yes,” Pippin said. “Are you sure I can’t scream? Just once? One good blood-curdling scream–”

“Would give the game away,” Merry replied firmly. “No screaming. Just do what I’ve told you.”

Pippin sighed, causing the thick layer of white powder coating him to puff then settle again. “All right. Let’s teach Aragorn a lesson.”

* * *
Aragorn paused, enjoying the feel of the approaching rain after the heat of the Hall of Fire. After the brightness of the Hall, the night seemed very dark. He blinked, trying to hurry his eyes’ adjustment to the night. After a moment, he realized that the line of lanterns strung along the walkway were unlit. Most odd, especially as this was one of the more dangerous paths along the steep cliffs. The lanterns were always lit at night. Frowning, Aragorn started to seek them when movement caught his eye.

It was a certainly a hobbit, standing on the edge of one of the sharp drops. None of the Fair Folk or their other visitors were so small. The moon, obscured by clouds, outlined the small figure. It was unquestionably a hobbit. But … it was pale, pale as the moon behind the thick layer of quick-moving clouds. Its face was in shadow but the pale skin glowed in stark contrast to its dark hair. Then it turned to face him and the light overhead caught on something Aragorn did recognize. Frodo’s gift from the Elves, the suit made for him and worn his first day back on his feet. Though he could not actually see the colour, the cut was unmistakable.

“Frodo?” Aragorn whispered. “Frodo, why are you…” The figure did not move. Lightening flashed overhead, blinding him momentarily and filling his returning vision with bands of black. His hand groped for his sword, only to remember that he did not wear it in the threat-free walls of Elrond’s House. He had only his knives. Stooping slightly, he slipped a throwing-knife from his boot and palmed it.

Slowly, the apparition raised its arm and pointed directly at him.

* TBC *

Chapter Seven

 

Aragorn froze automatically, half-crouching, the throwing-knife clenched in his hand. Another flash of lightening sent blue spots dancing before his eyes. He blinked them away, eyes tearing, and took a step forward, only to have the pale spectre’s accusing finger move to follow him.

“Who are you?” he called, his voice barely audible above the rumbling thunder. “What seek you here?”

The figure made no response, other than to shake its head slightly. In the clouded moonlight it glowed with pale radiance. It seemed to shimmer, giving the illusion of movement when there was none. It glimmered like a will o’ the wisp, a deceiving sprite existing only to lead lost souls to doom over fouled waters. It but stood and pointed at him, condemnation and accusation in its very stance.

“Answer me! How came you here?”

He took another step forward and the figure shook its head sadly, lowering its arm. Its entire body seemed to slump in sorrow, and it turned away from him, burying its face in its hands. He knew those clothes. That dark hair…dark hair on its pale feet…

“Frodo, if that is you, you will answer me this moment. I am done with games!”

The figure raised its head again, face averted, shoulders still slumped. Then it turned completely around, threw its arms wide in a dramatic gesture, and took one step forward off the side of the cliff and disappeared.

Frodo!” Aragorn’s knife thudded to the ground, forgotten, as he leaped forward. Hurling himself to the ground, he threw out his arms, struggling to catch the slim figure. Small stones tumbled from beneath him, bouncing down the cliffside to disappear into the dark with small pinging noises. He slid forward, heedless of his own safety. His outthrust fingers brushed the top of the head of the falling figure, then it was gone.

Rapidly retreating from him was a luminescent blur in the darkness. It was not falling; it seemed to swing away from him, floating in the air. Pinpoints of light ‒ stars ‒ surrounded the dwindling figure. Another flash of lightening seemed to reflect back at him from the pale blur. Arms outstretched and legs spread wide, it grew smaller and smaller and then, in a heartbeat, seemed to disappear completely.

His heart thudding, Aragorn lay on the edge of the cliff. A few soft, curling hairs twined around his fingers, before another gust of wind tugged them free and sent them tumbling into the dark. Wind whipped his hair into his eyes. With another agonizingly bright flash of light and thunder that nearly deafened him, the rain began.

* * *

“Pull, Sam! Pull!”

Sam did, shoulders straining through the soaked linen of his shirt and waistcoat. Rain lashed at them, making the line on which they were hauling as slippery as ice. Without warning, the line snapped taut as a heavy weight hit the end trailing over the balcony rail. Both hobbits were dragged forward, Merry almost to the railing. “He’s down!” Merry shouted, spitting out water.

Wasting no breath in reply, Sam kicked the sealed pipe-weed jar they had taken from Frodo’s bedroom under the quivering line, against the balustrade, taking a moment to make certain it was firmly wedged against the railings and would not budge. With this fulcrum in place, he wound the line around his hand and he and Merry together threaded the line over the smooth surface of the glass jar and re-wrapped it around their hands.

“Lord Elrond should be grateful we aren’t damaging his stone,” Merry huffed, hauling on the line.

“Aye, that line they use for stringing the lanterns is marvellous stuff,” Sam agreed, panting. “Thin as a thread, almost, and stronger than anything I’ve ever seen. Almost like spun metal. Better than rope! I’ve got to remember to ask the Elves for some when we leave.”

“Would you two quit chatting and get me up there!”

With another mighty effort, the line sawed over the glass jar and a dripping, flour-streaked face rose from the darkness. The rain had puddled in Pippin’s hair and on Frodo’s beautiful elven suit, giving both it and its wearer a leprous appearance. Pustules of flour paste ran down his body to drip away into the void. “Hurry up!” Pippin wailed, “I can’t feel my hands!”

“Did you load the pockets with rocks?” Merry gasped. Both hobbits tightened their hold on the line and began hauling hand-over-hand, grim determination on their faces. With a glance at Sam to warn him, Merry released the line and snatched Pippin under the arms, tugging him forward over the top of the railing and spilling them both to the balcony floor. Pippin slid off the mirror he had been holding onto for dear life and shook his hands, his face squinched up in pain.

“Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!”

“Pippin! Are you all right? Are you cut?”

“No,” came the somewhat hesitant reply. “But I’m never stepping off a cliff again, riding a board or mirror or anything else on a line. Not ever, ever again.”

“Is the mirror all right?” asked Merry, coiling up the line.

“It’s not even chipped,” Sam replied, examining it. “I’ll just rub it dry and have it back in the corner in two tics.”

“I’m all right, Sam, thank you,” Pippin muttered, sitting up and rubbing his cramping hands along his arms. “I could have fallen off, you know!”

“Not as long as you held on to the frame,” Merry told him. “How did Aragorn react when you stepped off the cliff?”

Under the flour and runnels of water, Pippin’s face lit. “You should have seen it! The look on his face when I swung away from him! He could not see the mirror at all in the dark. He‒” Pippin yelped as abused muscles protested when he levered himself to his feet.

“I want to hear every lovely detail,” Merry told him with relish. “But right now we have to concentrate on not being caught.”

“We’ve got to get moving, sirs–he’ll be here in a shot.”

“Inside, lads,” Merry ordered. “We’ve got to get clean and dry before he gets here. The rain will wash the flour off the balcony–it’s almost gone already. Sam, hide that line; we’ll return it to the walk later. Move, hobbits!”

Carrying the mirror under his arm, Merry hurried for the balcony doors. Pippin, wincing, came after him, followed by Sam, who was tidily tucking in the end of the line into the neat coil. Merry propped the mirror on his toes as he pushed at the doors. But the doors did not open. He pushed harder.

“Merry, will you hurry up? I won’t need a bath at all in a minute.” Pippin crowded against his back, beginning to shiver from the rain and reaction.

“I’m try‒”, Merry began. Then his horrified gaze fell on the bar supports inside Frodo’s room. The bar was lain across them, firmly locking shut the doors.

* * *

How long Aragorn lay on the edge of the cliff, pounded by rain, he did not know. It seemed at once seconds and yet hours. From the awful blankness of shock coherent  thought at last emerged. Whatever he had just seen, it was not possible.

He inched back from the sheer drop-off, unaware of the damage being done to the silks and velvet he wore as mud ground into the fine fabrics. Without thinking of it, he recovered his knife and returned it to his boot, his reminder to clean and oil it drifting away in the echoing recesses of his mind. He seemed unable to think, to move, to even stand – all that passed through his consciousness was the sight of that small body falling into the abyss, surrounded by stars and lightening.

“Lord Aragorn?”

Just for the briefest moment, he had felt hair as he touched the apparition’s head. He had seen the figure – he was certain he had. And touched it. Touched something. Therefore, it had to have been real.

“Lord Aragorn? Are you ill?”

He did not believe it had been a spirit. Frodo had not died, no matter how close he had come to it. The hobbit lived yet. He was recovering‒

The hand on his shoulder galvanized him into action, trained responses born of ten thousand nights of reconnaissance in hostile lands. He flung himself to the side and rolled, coming up on one knee with his long knife in his hand. Another leap and his back was to the cliff, knife raised to strike. Only then did he register the shocked visage of Boromir, son of Denethor, as the soldier of Gondor stared at him.

Thunder rolled in the distance as the two men stared at each other. The rain had been hard but brief, the water already rushing down to join the waterfalls of Imladris. Aragorn became aware that he was breathing heavily, almost gasping, and tried to master himself enough to steady his breathing. With an effort he lowered the knife, his hand clenched about it so tightly that its grip pressed into his hand, leaving an image of itself in his flesh. He straightened, seeking unconscious reassurance from the great rock wall behind him.

“Aragorn?”

To his credit, the soldier had not responded to his threat; the great sword he carried was still sheathed at his side. Though his hand was on its pommel. The Master of Rivendell had not insisted that his many guests go unarmed in his domain; the Dwarves retained their axes and many of the Men their swords. Boromir was one of these, not comfortable enough among so many strange and unfamiliar races to give up his weapon. This discomfort often prompted him to avoid the evening gatherings in the Hall of Fire, and it was not surprising that he was out enjoying the unsettled weather.

Boromir took a step towards him, his hand still on his sword. He looked as though he did not know if he should shout for help or seek an attacker, and Aragorn hastened to reassure him. The two men did not trust each other, though Aragorn hoped that trust would grow between them. There were tensions between them, not the least that Aragorn claimed the vacant throne which Boromir’s father and his father’s father and fathers uncounted guarded, a trust which Boromir himself had expected to continue in the fullness of time. Aragorn wished it had been another – any other – who had come upon him.

“I am not ill, or injured,” he said, moving slowly to sheath his knife. Unarmed, he meet the soldier’s gaze. “Forgive me – I have just had a great shock. One which,” he paused and drew in a steadying breath, “I can only believe has been intentionally inflicted upon me.”

“Inflicted?” Like Aragorn himself, Boromir did not wallow in words. Curiosity was replacing concern and alarm in his face. “How mean you, ‘inflicted’.”

Aragorn raised his hands and pushed the hair out of his eyes, rubbing a wet sleeve over his face. “Lord Boromir,” Aragorn said formally, “would you be kind enough to accompany me? I have need of your sword, and your strong right arm.”

Boromir bowed. “Of course, my lord. May I ask where we are going?”

“We are going,” Aragorn said, staring across the crevasse to the residences of the Last Homely House, “to confront the most insidious, evil, vile, obnoxious, and ungrateful creatures in all of Middle-earth.”

* TBC *

Chapter Eight

“Hobbits?” repeated Boromir doubtfully.

“I saw him fall,” Aragorn murmured, not seeming to hear the man at his side. “I saw him standing at the edge of the cliff. Then Frodo just stepped over it. And he was gone. I saw him fall into the abyss.”

“Small people?” Boromir ventured. “Hair on their feet? Always talking and eating and running about? Usually all at the same time?”

“He could not have walked so far! Not at night, not with a storm approaching. Not weakened as he is by his wound. I took his stitches out but this morning.”

“Curly hair on both feet and‒aahhh!”

Aragorn turned to find Boromir on his knees, one hand supporting himself on the muddy earth. Belatedly he remembered that the soldier was a stranger to Imladris, not familiar or comfortable on its narrow, winding paths. He extended a hand and Boromir looked at it intently before carefully wiping his hand on his cloak and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet.

“You do not know them as I do,” Aragorn continued as if there had been no mishap.

“Frodo and Merry and Pippin and Samwise,” Boromir specified. “Hobbits.”

“Frodo has a stare which will drill through a brick wall. Samwise will respectfully but adamantly disregard anything I tell him and look to Frodo. Merry – do not attempt to match wits with that one, Boromir! And Pippin! If there has ever been a more irritating, impolite‒”

“Ah,” Boromir interrupted tactfully. “As you said, I do not know them as you do. They seem a charming, harmless folk‒”

“Hah!”

“Lord Aragorn, perhaps you should rest‒”

Aragorn recalled himself with an effort, spurred into coherence by the concerned expression on Boromir’s face. “I will not be manipulated and humiliated by those four. I will get to the bottom of this!”

Moving more slowly with respect to the darkness and the man at his side, Aragorn hurried down the pathway, his mind in turmoil.

* * *

Merry stared at the bar locking shut the balcony doors, transfixed. Behind him, Pippin bumped against his back, now shivering violently. “Will you open the doors, please? I’m freezing!”

“They are locked.”

“They’re‒what?”

“What did you say, Mr. Merry?”

“They are locked.” Frodo’s voice was quiet but carried clearly through the doors. “And they will stay locked until you explain to me exactly what you three are doing out there.”

Merry stared through the slats at him, his mouth open, his mind blank. Frodo leaned slightly against the closed doors, but his stance was unyielding. In the darkness, his form was outlined by the fire behind him and the soft white nightshirt he wore seemed to glow. He looked almost ethereal, like the unearthly spirit Pippin had pretended to be.

Sam looked down at the coil of line as if he had no idea how it had arrived in his hands. “Ah, sir… We, that is, Mr. Merry and Master Pip and me … we…” he trailed off, looking at Merry.

Ah-choo!” Pippin’s loud sneeze made all of them jump.

Frodo’s baleful glare transferred to him, then Merry was relieved to see that adamantine stare soften. “What’s that lad doing out in the rain? Mad, all of you!” But he lifted the bar and the three slipped gratefully inside, trailing puddles of water and in Pippin’s case, little gobbets of dripping flour.

“What is that disgusting stuff in your hair?” Frodo demanded, handing Pippin a towel as the tweenager sidled past him. Merry propped the mirror back in its corner and swiped it down, grateful that the dimness of the room hid the water trickling down its surface.

“It’s … ummmm … it’s…  Ahhh-choo!”

“Pippin, you get under a blanket near the fire. Now, young hobbit!” Frodo barked, not waiting for his answer. Pippin dived onto a divan, making it rock, and pulled up one of the thick, fluffy blankets strewn about the room. Frodo watched him critically then his expression changed. “Pippin, what are you wearing? Is that‒is that my new suit?”

Pippin pulled the blanket to his neck, but with unexpected vigour, Frodo tottered across the room and pulled it off. “That is! That is my lovely new suit! What have you done to it?”

“Um,” said Pippin meekly. “Frodo, I’m cold.”

Glaring, Frodo handed back the blanket and Pippin wrapped himself up in it, crowding as close to the fire as he dared. “All right, we will get to that. I want that explanation now, Meriadoc.”

With a few moments to think, Merry regained the use of his tongue. “Cousin, Sam and I will right back. We have to‒”

“You do not have to do anything, Master Brandybuck. You–and Samwise–will stand right where you are and explain this to me.”

Sam winced, running the end of the line through his hands nervously. “I could put the kettle on, master. A hot cuppa would do us all good.”

“Don’t you move, Sam.”

Sam sought desperately about and fastened on the one thing that would move Frodo in this mood. “But Master Pippin, sir … he’s near froze. The poor lad could catch a cold.” Pippin glared at him, obviously resenting being used as a distraction, but Sam reminded himself it was every hobbit for himself when his master had that look in his eyes. It helped immensely when the lad let loose a huge sneeze that nearly blew him off the divan.

“All right, hot tea.”

Sam headed for the kettle and started the tea, managing to stash the coil of line out of sight. Merry stared after him, his mind working furiously.

“You. Sit.”

Merry did, managing to catch up another blanket and surreptitiously trying to dry himself. Frodo sank down beside him, seeming a little winded. How long would it take Aragorn to arrive? Merry had no doubt the Ranger would come straight here, at speed. His whole plan had depended on Aragorn finding them dry and apparently not having stepped foot out of Frodo’s room since their departure from the Hall of Fire.

“Now,” Frodo continued, pinning him with that sapphire stare, “talk.”

“I am sorry we woke you,” began Merry, but was interrupted by Frodo’s snort.

“You didn’t. I borrowed a page from Sam’s book.”

Sam started in laying out the cups and saucers, resulting in a clatter of china. “My book…my book?”

Frodo smiled in a self-satisfied way. “I wasn’t asleep when you were talking. I did what Sam did while I was speaking with Gildor and the Elves on our way here – pretended to be asleep so I could listen to your plans.”

“I never did!” Sam protested. “I mean, I did, but I didn’t mean anything…well…sneaky by it!”

“I, however, did. And was succeeding quite brilliantly, I might add, until you two carted me off to bed.” Sam and Merry exchanged rueful looks. “Thank you for leaving the bedroom door open,” Frodo continued with a certain malicious glee. “I could still hear you perfectly.”

“That was rather underhanded‒” Merry tried.

“Don’t you talk to me about being underhanded. I know you had plans for Aragorn. What did you three just do?”

“He deserved it,” Merry began hotly, but was silenced by voices outside in the corridor. He stopped, going pale. Sam dropped a teaspoon and in the sudden silence, its delicate ring sounded like the clang of doom. After a moment, the voices moved on.

“And now he’s coming here,” Frodo said, astutely interpreting the panic on three guilty faces. He sat back and looked at Merry, the firelight flickering on his face. “Well, we will sort this out later. Hobbits stick together, and it was my idea that he pay for his actions in the first place. I can hardly fault you for defending my honour. Now,” he paused and drew a great breath, “here is what we are going to do.”

* * *

“And then the apparition just disappeared?” Boromir strode at Aragorn’s side, struggling to keep his voice neutral. He chose his footfalls carefully, aware than he was slowing them but it was better than taking another fall in the mud. Especially here, where the entire valley seemed to be more vertical than horizontal.

Aragorn glanced sideways at him, hearing the dubious undertone in the carefully polite question. He stifled his irritation‒taking out his anger and uncertainty on the man would not help and would endanger their fragile cooperation. The problem was, he reflected, that none of the other members (with the exception of Gandalf) of their newly formed Fellowship had experience with hobbits. None of the others knew what aggravating, unfair little trouble-causers they could be.

“How many glasses of wine did you have tonight?” Boromir asked with ill-concealed humour.

A low chuckle almost made him forget his resolve and take issue with Boromir, before he realized it came from another direction. Both men stopped, staring into the gloom as a pale figure drifted towards them from the path ahead. Aragorn stifled a gasp but it was not a re-emergence of the spectral figure he had seen fall into the abyss; this figure wore a pointed, wide-brimmed hat, robes of somewhat stained grey wool, and was leaning on a staff. It was also laughing at them.

Boromir bowed. “Good eve, Gandalf.”

The wizard nodded an affable greeting, smoke curling around his head from a carved wooden pipe. “A good evening to the pair of you, Boromir, Aragorn. May I ask where you are going in such haste?”

Boromir eyed his companion askance. Having heard from his own lips his encounter with the pale spirit, Aragorn suddenly found he had no wish to relate it to the wizard. Gandalf’s eyes were gleaming, shot with light from the emerging stars, and (as usual) he seemed entirely too knowledgeable.

“We are not in haste‒” Aragorn began.

Gandalf shook his head, a smile curling his lips around the pipe. “When I see a Ranger of the North, recently acquainted with hobbits, heading at a near-run towards one elder hobbit’s rooms who believes he has cause to think himself ill-used, then I thought it best to ask that Ranger’s intentions.”

“Ill-used?” asked Boromir apprehensively, looking from the quietly furious Ranger to the amused wizard.

“I believe Frodo thinks himself ill-used,” replied Gandalf, falling into step behind them but at a much slower pace. Aragorn ground his teeth together. “What with the restrictions and demands placed upon him during his recovery. And he is supported by three other hobbit-folk who would do anything for him.” The wizard blew a smoke ring into the moist air. He paused to admire it and courtesy required that the other two stop also. After it had drifted away Gandalf resumed walking, swinging his staff.

“What you have yet to fully appreciate, Aragorn, is that when you rile Frodo, you have just had war declared upon you by every hobbit in Imladris. You are fortunate there are only five of them, or you would not have a chance.”

“I did nothing that was not for his own good!”

“Ah, but does Frodo understand that? In the course of your care of him, have you or Elrond ever explained to him why such measures as vile-tasting cordials and painful exercises are necessary? Or why his favourite foods are denied him, when he most needs the comfort of familiarity?”

This time it was Aragorn who stopped, causing Boromir to slide a step in the mud. “I … I never…” He took a deep breath and rallied. “As I recall, it was your idea to seal the pipeweed jar shut!”

“We needn’t mention that,” said the wizard hurriedly. “I was only trying to help you and Elrond find a solution to exercising his injured arm.”

“And I,” Aragorn said more calmly, “was only trying to help him heal. Perhaps I have been slightly … overbearing.”

Gandalf chuckled again, and involuntarily, both men felt smiles tugging at their mouths. “It is easy to do with hobbits, my friends. They seem childlike to us, especially before we know them well. And some of them, I fear, are predatory enough to turn that to their advantage.”

“Surely not,” Boromir protested.

The wizard and the Ranger exchanged looks. “Innocently done, in the younger one’s case. In Master Meriadoc’s case, I suspect it is not so innocent.”

“That one is too clever by half,” Aragorn agreed ruefully.

“And in possession of a vindictive streak, I fear,” said Gandalf. “Tell me why you are such a state, my friend, and then we shall get to the bottom of this mischief.”

* * *

A drift of cold, wet-smelling air accompanied Samwise into the room as he darted into the room and pushed the great wooden door shut. “He’s coming, sir! And Gandalf and that Lord Boromir are with him!”

“Gandalf!” cried Merry, dragging on a set of Frodo’s spare clothes. His own sodden garments had been balled up and shoved into the large pitcher on the washbasin, where the runnels of water would not betray them.

“How long, Sam?”

“They just turned down the hallway, sir. They’ll be here in‒”

A knock sounded on the wooden door and the hobbits’ keen ears caught the sound of a polite cough. “Samwise, it is Aragorn. May I enter?”

“Quiet!” Frodo hissed. “Maybe they will go away.”

The silence stretched on and an itch began to build in Merry’s throat. Sam’s eyes were watering as if he were holding in a mammoth sneeze. All of the hobbits jumped when the knock was replaced by a sharp rap as if from a wooden staff, and a sharper, “Frodo! I know you are not asleep! Let us in this moment!”

“Frodo,” squeaked Pippin, “I‒”

“Hush, lad. Don’t lose your head now. You just stay still by that fire.”

“But Frodo, I‒”

Frodo flung open the door, grimacing slightly with the effort. Merry and Sam crowded closer together, trying not to look apprehensive.

“Good evening. It is rather late for a visit,” Frodo said coolly, “and I was asleep.” Being an extremely truthful hobbit, he felt compelled to add, “Earlier.”

Gandalf leaned forward and poked Frodo in the centre of his chest with his staff. Boromir noticed, however, that the poke was neither very hard nor anywhere near the hobbit’s injured shoulder. “A likely story! What have you miscreants been up to, eh? What have you done to Aragorn?”

Frodo raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t done anything to Aragorn. I haven’t left my rooms. If you are going to shout and hurl imprecations at me, perhaps you should come in.” Stepping aside, he made room for the three Big People to enter.

“You haven’t left your rooms?” Aragorn asked, striding past Frodo to turn up the lamps. He stared at the other hobbits for a moment then ignored them, concentrating on Frodo.

“No, I haven’t,” Frodo repeated with emphasis.

“And them?” A wave took in the other hobbits.

“We were just having a spot of tea,” said Frodo, dancing around the truth. “I’m sure Sam can scare up three more cups. Would you care to join‒”

“I’ll get them,” Merry volunteered. He tried to slide around the newcomers when Aragorn’s long arm shot out and caught him by the shoulder. “Ouch!”

“Your clothes are dry,” Aragorn murmured, releasing Merry’s shoulder to run his hand over the borrowed shirt Merry wore. Turning suddenly, he strode towards Pippin. Pippin froze like a rabbit in the grass. “Yours too.” Pippin said nothing but stared up at him with huge eyes.

“Sam, please fetch three cups. And we’ll need more tea. Off you go, lad.” Aragorn whirled around but Sam had taken to his heels and was out of the door before the Ranger could cross the room again. Frodo smiled. “It will take Sam a few minutes to bring refreshments. Would you care to take a seat?”

“What have you been up to?” Gandalf demanded, refusing Frodo’s gracious gesture. Boromir did take a chair, looking embarrassed and out of place. Aragorn remained by the fire, looking from Frodo to Merry to Pippin, seeming at a loss. Gandalf remained standing, resting his hands on his staff, watching them all.

“I?” Frodo drew himself up. “I have done nothing. I,” and the pronoun was very pointed, “do not pound on peoples’ doors at night and shout accusations at them. May I ask what this is about? I have been ill, you know, and need my rest.”

That seemed to penetrate Aragorn’s haze. “You should not be out of bed,” he said, his old manner of sternness returning. “Much less walking about. You should‒”

Frodo’s eyes narrowed and Merry involuntarily backed up a step. Surprisingly, it was Boromir who averted the impending explosion. The solider stood so suddenly that the chair on which he had sat overturned, its wooden legs clattering on the floor.

“It seems I have intruded on a medical consultation,” he said hastily, righting the chair. His sword stuck in one of the rungs and he struggled for a moment before extracting it. “I understand that such things are private. Master Frodo, my apologies for inconveniencing you. I bid you all good evening.” Before anyone could respond, he was gone.

“A good soldier knows when to strategically retreat,” Gandalf said levelly. “I will commend Boromir on his perceptiveness and good sense when next I see him. Whenever that is. You hobbits have probably driven the poor man into hiding.”

“I have done nothing,” Frodo said with a sniff.

The wizard leaned over and stared into Frodo’s face, brows bristling. “You have, in just this one day, complained about your care and treatment, refused the nourishing foods prescribed you, insulted your physician and all of his line, and crowned this despicable behaviour by throwing objects at him.”

“It was just one leather ball,” said Frodo, taken aback. “And I didn’t hit him.”

Gandalf straightened. “Aragorn saved your life, Frodo. All of your lives, most likely,” he added with a sharp glance at the watching hobbits. “He saved your lives in that cursed circle on Weathertop,” here he noticed that Frodo’s face paled and Merry stepped closer to Pippin. His tone softened. “He – and all of you – kept Frodo alive long enough to reach Elrond.” Gandalf’s voice dropped lower. “You repay Aragorn in poor coin, my lads.”

Silence lay thick in the room. Then Aragorn cleared his throat. “No one is at his best when ill,” he said, moving forward to lay his hand on Frodo’s good shoulder. “I think Frodo can be excused a little foul humour‒”

“And you, Aragorn.” Aragorn looked at Gandalf, startled, as the wizard continued. “You have been presumptuous and overbearing, and have treated Frodo as more a child than a grown hobbit. You have placed what you thought he needed over what he told you he needed. You have not listened to him.”

“Aragorn is not familiar with hobbits, and he was doing as he was bidden,” Frodo said softly. “It is not his fault.”

“Yes,” said Gandalf simply.

The two parties started at the floor, their faces flushed. Then Frodo turned around and reached up to take Aragorn’s hand. “Aragorn, I’m sorry,” Frodo began, only to be interrupted by Aragorn’s, “Frodo, I apologize‒”

“Sorry, you go first‒”

“No, you go first‒”

Both of them stopped speaking, colour high in their faces and wry smiles breaking over their countenances.

“I think now the physician will listen more closely to the patient, and the patient will listen to his physician,” Gandalf said with a twinkle in his eyes. “Shall we have peace?”

 * * *

Sam stuck his head in the door and peered around. “I brought the cups and tea, Mr. Frodo, just in case. Are they gone?”

“They’re gone.” Frodo heaved a great sigh and sagged onto a divan.

Sam edged into the room and dropped a tray onto a stool. “The game would be up if he’d a-touched my clothes,” he said, patting his jacket. “I dried off as best I could, but things are still a mite damp.”

Frodo nodded. “Well, that’s that. Now I want to hear every detail of what you three were up to.” With the Big People gone, he ran his hands over his face, allowing his exhaustion to show. “You can get up now, Pippin.”

“No, I can’t. Frodo, I tried you tell you‒”

“What? Tried to tell me what?”

“I can’t move!” The words came out in a wail. Frodo struggled to his feet but Merry and Sam reached Pippin first. Sam dragged off the blanket and reached down.

“It’s the clothes! Mr. Frodo, they’re froze solid!”

“Not frozen,” Merry gasped, tugging on Pippin’s collar. “The flour! And water … and heat.” They looked at the fire, then swivelled back to Pippin. “Remember the flour paste animals we used to make as children?” Merry gave up on the collar and tugged at the waistcoat. “A game at parties … strips of cloth wrapped around some sort of form? After it dried, the adults would cut a hole in the back and fill the form with sweets, and we’d be blindfolded and swing a stick at it, trying to break it so the sweets would fall out.”

“I remember.” Sam pulled grimly and managed to bend back the hem of Pippin’s sleeve. With a grunt, he bent it all the way back and like a piece of china, it snapped. Sam held up a solid piece of unyielding cloth, and all the hobbits stared at it.

“My suit,” Frodo wailed, sounding much like Pippin. “My beautiful, beautiful green suit!”

“It’s going to be a flour paste Pippin if we don’t get him out of this,” Merry growled, ignoring the small yelps as he pushed and tugged at the unyielding cloth.

“Should we dunk him in the baths?” asked Sam. “That would soften the paste. Or I could ask for a half-bath ‒ the Elves could bring one up in less than an hour.”

“Frodo,” Pippin said miserably, squirming. “I need to get out of this now. I mean now.”

“Can’t you wait, lad?” Frodo asked desperately.

“No! I’m sorry. Now, please!”

“Oh dear.” Frodo fingered the fine cloth sadly. Under its thick coating of clotted flour, it still shimmered like sun-lit leaves. “Well, there’s nothing for it. Sam, would you get the scissors?”

“Oh, Mr. Frodo, no. You can’t do that to the fine gift the Elves gave you!”

“Better than what Pippin’s going to do to it if you don’t get him free,” Merry commented, stroking Pippin’s hair comfortingly.

“Will you please get me out of this? Please!”

* * *

The following day dawned clear and cold, the previous evening’s rain seeming to sharpen every leaf and blade of grass. Frodo laid down the last piece of toast regretfully; after the heavy breakfast he had been served, he could not force it down. And was wise enough not to try. A long talk with Aragorn this morning had cleared up misconceptions on both sides and if breakfast and second breakfast would not be all the recovering hobbit wished, it would now be what his healing body could make the best use of.

A sparkle outside his balcony doors caught his eye, and he frowned at it, curious. Sam had been sent off to diplomatically deal with the remains of his cherished suit but Frodo felt stronger and more steady on his feet. He certainly could manage the short walk out to the balcony by himself.

Frodo sat aside the tray and slid carefully to his feet. Even walking out into the thin sunshine was a joy and he leaned on the stone balustrade for a moment, enjoying the calls of the birds flitting through the greenery. At last giving in to his curiosity, he sought the source of the sparkle.

Something glittered near the edge of the balcony. Stooping, he reached out and tried to grasp it, but it slipped through his fingers and rolled away. It took both hands to capture the thing, but with a little gasp, he did. In his hands was the forgotten pipe-weed jar. Still sealed tight, and unopenable. The Longbottom Leaf inside looked more desirable than ever.

He wandered back inside and settled himself onto a divan. What was that strange striation running completely around the centre of the jar? He probed it with his fingers, feeling the indentation. What had Merry said? A fulcrum. They had used a fulcrum to control Pippin’s ride on the mirror. A thin, tough wire, sawing again and again back and forth on glass…

Very carefully, Frodo tucked the jar into his side and clamped down on the lid with his good arm. Tink! He tried again. Tink! Plink! And the entire top half of the jar twisted off as cleanly as if it had been cut.

Frodo reached in and extracted a leaf, inhaling the fragrance of the very finest pipe-weed. He should share it with his friends. He really should. Then again, what they had put him through yesterday…  Well, he would share. With a certain Ranger of the North who had saved his life and in whose hands his life now lay. Smiling, the Ring-bearer divided the remaining pipe-weed into two equal piles, humming a little to himself as he did so.

The End





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