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“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.
* * *
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 *
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