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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.
“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.
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."
* * *
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!”
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.
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 *
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