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Out of All Knowledge  by Budgielover

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what happened to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Frodo!” shrieked Pippin.

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

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

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

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

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

* TBC * 

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