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Out of All Knowledge  by Budgielover

Chapter Twelve

"Master Merry? Master Merry?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The story?" Aragorn prompted hurriedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good luck," commented Pippin briefly.

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

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

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

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

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

* TBC *

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