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This was written for the LotR Genfic community's Yule Fic Exchange. The recipient—Pearl Took. The request—"What would it be like to abandon your identity and slip into another, to become someone else? How long could you keep up the illusion? Today, show one of your characters as they assume an alias. I want Gandalf and Pippin to get switched. Or, if you feel that's a bit much to have someone handle (both changing) just Gandalf becoming Pippin."
For better or for worse, this is what my muse came up with. Profound thanks to Dreamflower for the beta edit!
Puffing contentedly on his pipe, Gandalf summoned his most agreeable smile as a direct counter to a pair of elven glares. Nonplussed, the two elves turned and walked away, their curt manner suggesting bridled anger. His smile growing, Gandalf sent a few smoke rings after them and stirred the breeze just enough to give them a parting waft of Old Toby. Until Master Elrond said otherwise, all guests were free to smoke anywhere outside the Last Homely House, a situation not to the liking of many Imladris residents. Gandalf's opinion was that many Imladris residents could do with a good ear-jerking, as the elven saying went, and he chuckled when the pair quickened their pace and hastily disappeared down the garden trail. Feeling both contrary and satisfied, Gandalf settled back on his sun-warmed bench and turned his attention to the changing autumn leaves.
Red, yellow, and orange blazed overhead as a brisk November wind knocked tree limbs about. Clustered around the base of one tree, four hobbits watched in rapt attention, and Gandalf was not too proud to admit his own fascination. He usually found a moment to sit back and appreciate a vibrant spread of fall foliage, but he appreciated it even more when the colors were in Radagast's capable hands.
To one side of the hobbits, Radagast the Brown murmured subtle words that rippled through the surrounding trees and caused all the leaves to shift to a burnished gold. After delivering Gandalf to Edoras, Gwaihir had flown to the Carrock and told Radagast of all that transpired at Orthanc. Horrified by his unwitting role in Gandalf's capture, Radagast had immediately set out for Imladris, pushing his horse hard and arriving only a few days ago. Never before had Gandalf been so grateful for his fellow wizard. Though Radagast had little to offer in the way of weapons or stratagems, his presence was a much-needed balm to the spirit. Saruman's betrayal had left grievous wounds not easily healed or discerned, and Gandalf had not realized the depth of these wounds until Radagast's warm company began to heal them.
Laughter drew Gandalf's attention away from the leaves, and his brow furrowed at the sight of all four hobbits pointing at him and clutching their sides. Suspicions rising, Gandalf turned his eyes to Radagast. Merry and Pippin had taken an immediate liking to the other wizard, and he had responded in kind by providing all manner of diversions. Now under Gandalf's accusing look, Radagast lifted one shoulder in baffled innocence, as if to say he could not fathom what the hobbits found so amusing. A shift in color pulled Gandalf's eyes downward, and he sighed. "Kindly return my beard to its original gray."
Leaning against his crooked staff, Radagast looked pointedly at Gandalf's pipe. "In return, what will you offer me?"
"The opportunity to avoid dismemberment."
"What other colors can you make his beard?" Pippin asked, his grin as wide as the Sea. Even Frodo seemed light-hearted, and Gandalf decided he could forgive Radagast his jest if it bought the Ring-bearer some peace.
"Best see to yourself, Peregrin Took," Radagast warned with a smile. "Gandalf's beard has the color from your hair. Where do you suppose the color from his beard went?"
Pippin grabbed at his head, and Gandalf watched with undisguised amusement as the hobbit's hair shimmered and paled into a wizardly gray. "You look older than the Thain!" Frodo laughed.
"Or the Gaffer," Sam added.
"And to think I said you'd never live long enough to get gray hair!" Merry exclaimed. He turned to Radagast, brimming with curiosity. "How did you do that?"
"As I mentioned at the Council, my kinsman is a master of shape and hue," Gandalf said, eyes narrow. "But even the greatest masters know when they have reached their limits."
"The only limits here are the limits of your patience," Radagast said. He pushed his sleeves back and tapped his staff on the ground. "But if you insist on being a curmudgeon, I shall restore…" He trailed off, his brow wrinkling. "Do you hear—"
The horse appeared out of nowhere.
Racing almost silently beneath the trees, hooves muffled by leaves and wind, both rider and mount were on top of the hobbits before either was aware of the other. Startled, the horse reared up, and the man on his back cried out in surprise, struggling to both keep his seat and turn the steed aside. Churning hooves stirred the leaves into an autumn whirlwind so colorful it confounded the eyes. Raising his arms to protect his face, Gandalf heard a loud thump followed by a shrill whinny. Something flew into a nearby tree, the rattling clatter giving it away as Radagast's staff. A memory rose, unbidden and unwanted. In his mind's eye, Gandalf saw his own staff roll across the stone floor of Orthanc. From deep within, he felt a tug. A pull. Something slithered over his skin, and the tug became harder. Sharper. Something was leaving him, and caught in the throes of recent memory, he struck back. Seizing whatever was being stolen, he pulled it deep into his mind and warded his thoughts against any that might follow.
The thief was relentless. Denied his prize, he battered hard against Gandalf's mind, determined to find entry. But Gandalf could be relentless, too. Wrapping himself about that which he must protect, he forced all else away. And as he did so, something…shifted.
Suddenly, there was nothing left to push. Thrown by the force of his efforts, the world toppled out from under him. He felt himself falling. A heavy weight wound about his head, and the ground rushed up to meet him. He struggled to rise, fearing an enemy had breached Elrond's defenses, but he found himself tangled in a heavy cloak.
Beyond the veiling cloth, Radagast swore loudly, an unusual but comforting sound. It meant he was angry rather than alarmed, and that meant they were in no immediate danger. Nevertheless, until Gandalf knew what had attacked him and why, he could not relax his guard.
"You might have given a warning," Radagast said sharply.
"If I had known you were here, I would have done so," came the answer. Gandalf immediately recognized the second speaker's voice, and he shook his head as he wrestled with the entangling cloak. Aragorn had done well in guiding the hobbits across Eriador, but no one would remember those deeds if he ran them down in the safety of Imladris. "Is anyone hurt?" Aragorn called.
"Just startled," Frodo said from somewhere behind Gandalf. "Sam? Merry? Pippin?"
"I'm alright, sir," Sam answered.
Gandalf attempted to speak, but his words were lost in the folds of fabric wrapped about his head.
"A little shaken but no worse for wear." That was Merry, his voice near at hand. "Pippin, will you stop fooling around under there?"
"It's a good thing you didn't come up on us like that in the Wilds, Strider," Frodo said. "The friend-and-foe speech was all well and good in Bree, but if you'd appeared so suddenly on the Road, I don't know that we'd have given you a chance to explain."
"If your horse was not so silent—" Radagast began.
"Roheryn is supposed to be silent. A poor Ranger's horse he would be if he announced his presence to all and sundry in the Wilds!"
Something was wrong. It had been niggling at Gandalf ever since the attack, but he could not determine what was amiss. Channeling his thoughts through Narya, he traced the webbing of Vilya's protective power. Yet he discerned no intruder in the valley. Imladris felt as it always did, and the song of its defenses continued unchanged. Nevertheless, something seemed…different.
"Rivendell is not the Wilds," Radagast growled. Gandalf heard him walk over and pick up his staff.
"And why are you in Rivendell and not the Wilds?" Aragorn wondered. "We sent scouts to Rhosgobel with tidings for—"
"Why should I sit idly for tidings at Rhosgobel?" There was an indignant tone to Radagast's voice. "I have been gathering all the tidings I can these past months at the Carrock. It was from Gwaihir himself that I learned of…" Radagast paused. "Gandalf?"
It was not the most impressive entrance he had ever made, but Gandalf managed to push an arm clear of the cloak. His face followed, and he inhaled deeply, relishing the fresh air. While he prepared a glare to ward off any comments about entangling himself in his own mantle, three hobbit faces appeared above him. Further away, Aragorn begin to speak, his voice low and concerned: "Gandalf? Gandalf!"
A low groan answered the Ranger.
"Out you come, Pip," Merry said, reaching down and freeing the rest of the wrap from Gandalf's neck. "How you came to be so tangled up in Gandalf's cloak, I'll never know."
"Do you remember the time he almost strangled himself in the Gaffer's scarf?" Frodo asked, unraveling the bottom of the cloak from Gandalf's feet. "I'm still trying to work out how that happened, and that was ten years ago."
The cloak slipped away. Gandalf immediately shivered, for the robes beneath the cloak also slipped away. Grabbing them before he found himself completely naked, he held them up for warmth against the cool autumn wind.
A shadow loomed above. Gandalf looked up. Radagast was much taller than he should have been.
"Pippin?" Merry was at his side, his voice concerned. "What's wrong? What's happening?"
Gandalf stared at Radagast. Radagast stared at Gandalf. Startled realization flooded both of them. Gandalf looked over at Aragorn, who knelt some distance away and blocked a prone figure from view. But Gandalf did not need to see what—or rather who—lay beyond the Ranger. As impossible as it was, he already knew.
"Sam," Gandalf said, wincing at the higher pitch of his voice, "I think I shall require hobbit clothes. Would you fetch some and take them to Elrond's study? We will meet you there."
Elrond had just taken a sip of miruvor when he felt the…shift. It was the closest he would ever come to describing the sensation. Much easier to describe was the sudden coughing fit that ensued when the shift made him choke on his drink. As both Galdor and Erestor rose from their seats in alarm, Elrond let his goblet fall and curled over his knees, desperate to dispel the cordial from his lungs.
Someone hit him hard between the shoulders, and he dimly heard voices demanding to know if he was alright. He ignored them, feeling the answer to be obvious: Of course he was not alright! Less obvious was the cause behind his choking fit, and as his coughs lessened, he concentrated on that.
Something in Imladris had changed sharply and suddenly. It was not a malicious change, insofar as Vilya could determine. But it was akin to nothing he had ever felt before, and Elrond did not like mysteries in his valley. He followed the course of the waters, both those above and below ground. He traced the border of the Bruinen and ghosted along the breeze. He touched upon the earth and the trees, listening to their harmonies, and then he spread his thoughts further, looking, reaching, feeling…
Perhaps it should have been the first place he looked, but he was not yet accustomed to searching for Sauron's Ring in his valley. Nor had there been any ill intent behind the shift, whatever it was, and he had not thought to suspect the One. After examining the shimmers of art and dominion reflected in Vilya's awareness, he decided there was still no reason to suspect the One. Rather, it was Narya that felt different. Something had happened to Mithrandir.
Something was still happening to Mithrandir.
With a final cough, Elrond pushed out of his chair before Galdor could hit him again. He shook his miruvor-soaked robes and waved off Erestor's concern. "I am well," he said, "but perhaps we should adjourn for a time."
Galdor nodded slowly. "If you are certain. But we must still make plans in the event that Mithlond comes under attack. We cannot protect all the ships needed to ferry refugees to Aman, assuming there are refugees. We need a second port, and we need to spread the ships between Mithlond and—"
"Yes, but not now," Elrond interrupted. His head spun, and the study seemed cold. Moving to the hearth, he stirred the logs within and coaxed new life into the fitful fire. At the same time, he reached again toward Narya, probing gently, but he received no response. He hesitantly quested for Nenya, but Galadriel made no answer, either. Perhaps she was unaware that anything had happened, for if Elrond had not experienced the shift while in the haven of his own valley, he might not notice it now. It had become faint. Faded. Scarce to be felt. Nevertheless, something about Narya's bearer had changed.
Behind him, Erestor cleared his throat. "Do you wish to name a time for another meeting?"
A difficult question. If something was wrong, it would have to be righted. But Elrond did not yet know what would be required of him. He did not even know if anything was wrong. At the moment, he only knew that something was different. "Beyond finding another port for Círdan's ships, what more have we to discuss?" he asked, his mind only partially on the question. Narya and the One Ring were drifting closer.
"We should sense missives to Eryn Galen and Lothlórien," Galdor said. "If our hopes fail, we need to know if the elves there will flee to the West."
"Does Círdan have ships enough for all of them?" Erestor asked.
"That is something else we must determine."
"Celeborn and Galadriel will not flee. Nor will Thranduil," Elrond said with certainty, rubbing his brow. It seemed that Narya and the One Ring were coming toward him. "They will give their people leave to go, but only a few will forsake the forests. Many of those elves outlasted Morgoth. They will seek to outlast Sauron."
"Morgoth ignored the Silvan folk for the most part," Galdor said darkly. "Will Sauron do the same? Eryn Galen and Lothlórien have been thorns in his side for many years. The people there must be told of the risks!"
"They know them well," Elrond said, turning toward the door of his study. He could now hear the faint murmur of voices in the hall, and he walked forward, deciding to meet potential trouble rather than waiting for it.
When he opened the door, he began to have second thoughts.
The first thing he saw was Mithrandir's staff. He saw nothing else for a moment because he was trying to work out how it was walking on its own. It took a moment for his eyes to travel down the staff to Peregrin Took, who was wrapped tightly in a hobbit cloak and whose eyes flashed with something that did not belong in a hobbit. Bewildered, Elrond looked for Mithrandir and found Radagast, who stood just behind Pippin and clutched his own staff with a fierceness that suggested he wanted nothing more than to blend with the colors of the hallway until he could not be seen. Behind Radagast stood a barefoot Mithrandir, looking as bewildered as Elrond felt and leaning on Aragorn—who should have been in the Wilds—as though he needed support. With a closed expression, Aragorn held Mithrandir's boots in one hand propped up said wizard with the other. Frodo and Merry stood just behind them, the former looking worried and the latter looking furious enough to challenge the Dark Lord himself.
Unable to discern the problem through appearance alone, Elrond brushed Vilya's awareness and made an alarming discovery: Pippin was holding more than just Mithrandir's staff.
Elrond shot an astonished look at Mithrandir, but Mithrandir was not looking at him. Mithrandir was tugging on his beard and struggling to get his balance. Aragorn murmured something that was probably meant to be reassuring, but his was the only voice in the hallway. All others seemed to be waiting for someone else to take the first step.
Movement drew Elrond's attention to the side as Erestor joined him in the doorway. The counselor took a long look at the assemblage in the hall. "I know not what happened to bring you all here," he said at length, "but it must be a fascinating tale if Aragorn has charge of a wizard's boots and Peregrin Took has charge of a wizard's staff. What charge were you given in exchange, Mithrandir?"
Mithrandir looked around uncertainly. Aragorn grimaced but said nothing. Apparently running out of patience, Pippin leaned against Mithrandir's staff, scowled fiercely, and asked, "Are you going to let us in or must we conduct our business in the hallway?"
Grappling with sudden and impossible recognition, Elrond inhaled sharply. Erestor gave him a startled look. "Something is amiss?"
"Oh yes," Elrond heard himself say, his voice deceptively mild. "Something is amiss."
Perplexed, Erestor looked again at those standing beyond the doorway before directing his attention back to Elrond, his gaze intent and measuring. "I will send for fresh robes so you do not smell as though you drowned in the cordial," he said at length. "While I am out, do you wish me to fetch a second decanter of miruvor?"
Elrond shook his head. "Dorwinion. At least several casks of the strong variety that Thranduil favors." He stepped back and gestured for the group to enter. "Make certain we do not run out."
Given the situation, Elrond looked surprisingly calm. Aragorn might have drawn comfort from this except that Elrond often looked surprisingly calm when he did not wish to reveal a problem's severity. No one else looked surprisingly calm, which seemed a much more reliable gauge of the fact that Gandalf now looked like Pippin and Pippin now looked like Gandalf.
"It comes down to a question of shape and hue," Radagast said, rubbing his brow. "For a wizard, these things are not necessarily...binding. They can be shed or changed at great need."
"And given to another?" Galdor asked incredulously.
"Usually, no. But in this case, Gandalf forcibly kept a portion of Pippin's hue—"
"What was Gandalf doing with a portion of Pippin's hue?" Elrond interrupted.
"Trying to give it back," Gandalf growled.
Aragorn gritted his teeth, wishing they could find some way to postpone explanations. They would have to do this all over again when Erestor and Sam arrived with clothes for Elrond and Gandalf.
"Does that really matter?" Merry asked. "I'd think we would be more concerned about undoing this than figuring out who was doing what."
"Part of the undoing might lie in the details of who was doing what," Aragorn explained.
"Then if we are agreed, are we able to establish the who and the what?" Elrond asked, leaning back in his chair. Aragorn frowned. No one should look that composed after discovering a wizard in a hobbit's body and a hobbit in a wizard's body.
"I altered the color in Gandalf's beard to match the color in Pippin's hair," Radagast said.
"He then altered the color in Pippin's hair to match the color in my beard," Gandalf added, arms folded and hobbit eyes blazing. "But rather than simply shifting the colors, he shifted the forms!"
This apparently meant something, but Aragorn had no idea what. If he judged the expressions of Elrond and Galdor aright, they were equally lost.
"It is something I do often!" Radagast protested. "Never before have I had anyone fight to keep that which was not his!"
From a chair in the corner, Pippin cleared his throat. All eyes swung his direction. In a testament to the depth of his shock, Pippin had been silent after uncovering—quite literally, since Gandalf's larger frame had burst his hobbit clothes—what had happened. Aragorn could hardly blame him. He had been rendered speechless himself when a flood of impressive Quenyan oaths had rolled forth from a supposedly innocent hobbit mouth. "I don't mean to…" Pippin began, but he quickly trailed off. He reached toward his neck, winced when he encountered beard, batted the offending grey away, and felt his throat. "Am I meant to sound like this?"
"You sound like Gandalf," Merry said flatly. "Was that what you were asking?"
Pippin shook his head. "Look, I don't mean to interrupt if we're working on getting me back to what I should be, but would someone please explain in simple terms why I'm now Gandalf?"
"You aren't," Radagast said.
Everyone stared at Radagast. "He isn't?" Galdor asked.
"He certainly looks and sounds like Gandalf," Frodo added.
"Yes, but the form alone has changed," Radagast said. "As I was trying to explain earlier, I gave Gandalf a portion of Pippin's form: the color and texture of his hair. I did the same to Gandalf. When Aragorn rode up and startled us, I released my hold on their forms so that I might react defensively. At that point, Pippin's hair and Gandalf's beard should have been restored to their proper places." Radagast looked expectantly down at Gandalf, his brow creasing. "They were not. Gandalf refused to yield Pippin's shape and hue. Rather, he used the connection I had formed between them to claim the rest, thrusting aside his own form which then flowed back along the link to Pippin."
"Something was being stolen from me," Gandalf said coldly. He made good use of Pippin's expressive face and graced them all with a dark look. "You would have done likewise if you had spent two months as Saruman's guest."
Silence fell. No one seemed to have anything to say to that. Eventually, Elrond coughed politely and turned to Radagast. "Can you do as you did before? Can you shift their shapes and hues and restore them to their proper forms?"
Radagast shook his head. "The final words in this casting were not mine but Gandalf's. He sealed the shift in form. As such, only he can undo it. Were he to lift his sealing, I believe that both Gandalf and Pippin would be immediately restored."
Everyone looked expectantly at Gandalf. Gandalf folded his arms over his chest. "Shape and hue are not my study. I do not know what was sealed, much less how to release it."
"Is there anything you might try, Radagast?" Elrond asked.
"Several things, all of them dangerous, and none of them likely to work."
"You mean I'm stuck like this?" Pippin demanded.
"Couldn't we just recreate the circumstances?" Merry asked.
"Not while Gandalf is holding to Pippin's form as tightly as he is," Radagast answered. "If we wait several years for the sealing to weaken, I might be able to—"
"Several years?" Pippin, Frodo, and Merry chorused together.
A knock at the door prevented further discussion, and Erestor entered, followed closely by Sam. With some awkward bustle, Sam presented hobbit-sized clothes to Gandalf while Erestor handed Elrond a change of robes before placing a decanter of miruvor on the desk. "Cordial for now," he told Elrond. "The Dorwinion I hold as my hostage. For ransom, I ask to be told what is happening."
"I believe Radagast can explain it best," Elrond said. "Aragorn, would you attend me?"
Glad of any excuse to part with the increasingly tense hobbits and wizards, Aragorn made no objection to the fact that the Chieftain of the Dúnedain had just been assigned a squire's duties.
"Radagast has shared why he is in Rivendell," Elrond murmured as Aragorn helped him out of his sodden garments. "Why have you returned? I did not look to see you for several months."
"I bring tidings from the searchers," Aragorn said, draping the wet robes over a chair near the hearth. He winced at a sudden oath from Erestor and wondered how good Frodo's Sindarin was. He hoped Bilbo had not taught his nephew some of the more…colorful expressions. "Eight black horses were discovered south of the Ford," he continued. "We found also one black cloak rent nearly in twain. But we have found no trace of the Ringwraiths, and none can discern their presence. Not yet." He paused. What he had to say next touched upon the reason he had personally returned to Imladris. "If you wish to expand the search," he said slowly, "we have enough Rangers gathered in the Angle to do so."
In the process of tying off the fastenings of his new robe, Elrond looked up, his gaze sharp. "Your tone suggests otherwise."
Aragorn gritted his teeth. The search for the Ringwraiths was necessary to ensure Frodo's safety, but in order for that search to take place, a concession was necessary. A concession that would deepen the debt his people already owed the elves and serve as yet another reminder that the line of Isildur could not sustain itself much longer. "If you wish for the Rangers' aid, we must beg a boon of you. Now is the time when game grows fat in preparation for winter, and our hunting parties look to stock our cold-rooms. If we call forth as many men as will be necessary for these searches—"
"Imladris will provision those undertaking the search," Elrond interrupted quietly. "You need not dip into your own supplies. And your people are welcome to our larders should you have need of them this winter."
"You have our thanks," Aragorn said, trying to keep the stiffness from his voice. "Food for the searchers will suffice for now."
"As you wish." Smoothing down his new robes, Elrond turned back to the group. Aragorn did likewise, noting that Gandalf was now properly clothed and Erestor was now properly stunned.
"Little wonder that hobbits do not wear shoes," Gandalf was saying with a baleful glare at his feet. "Never before have my toes itched so much! Is this customary?"
Merry blinked. Frodo shifted uncomfortably. Sam suddenly found the floor to be of great interest. Beneath his beard, Pippin flushed a deep scarlet and darted a glance at the other hobbits. "It isn't spoken of in polite circles," he grated.
"If you needed Uncle Merimac's cream, you could have asked," Merry muttered. "I packed some just in case."
"How was I to know that?" Pippin hissed.
Erestor cleared his throat. "So Mithrandir is Peregrin and Peregrin is—"
"In shape and hue only," Radagast interrupted. "The form has changed. Nothing else."
"Then how do we change the form back?" Erestor asked.
"That is the problem," Elrond said. "There does not seem to be an easy solution."
"What, then?" Pippin demanded. "Should I wander about Rivendell being subtle and quick to anger?"
Gandalf's curly head slowly turned, eyes glinting. "Subtle and quick to anger?"
"I thought you were supposed to say yes and no to all questions," Merry whispered.
"No, that's elves," Sam corrected, immediately shutting his mouth when all elven eyes snapped his direction.
Aragorn frowned in the ensuing silence, wondering if he should point out the truth in the claim or if that would only make matters worse. He was saved from having to decide by Elrond, who broke the silence with his usual diplomatic grace. "The fewer who know of this, the better. There is fear and concern enough without adding to it. As such, I think Pippin and Gandalf should remain here until this is resolved."
"What if this cannot be resolved?" Aragorn wondered. He spread his hands defensively when he found himself the victim of several impressive glares. "The question should be considered! Hope will only reach so far if things cannot be set right."
"That time has not yet come, and until it does, hope's reach will have to suffice," Elrond said. "We are not prepared to—"
A loud growl rumbled over the top of Elrond's words, silencing him by virtue of sheer surprise. Everyone looked at Gandalf. Gandalf blinked and looked at his stomach. Gandalf's stomach responded to the scrutiny with a second growl.
"If Gandalf has Pippin's form, does that mean he has Pippin's appetite?" Merry asked. "Because Pip's still in his tweens. At least, his form is. And if a tween is hungry, it's difficult for him to concentrate on anything."
"Midafternoon," Pippin murmured, scratching irritably at his beard. "I should be thinking of heading down to the kitchens for a bit of a snack. Only I'm not."
"But your form is," Frodo said.
A third growl rumbled through the room. Gandalf held his stomach, eyes narrow, and Pippin sighed. "I'm afraid it will only get worse before it gets better. And it will only get better if it has something to eat."
Frodo looked at Elrond. "It probably would be safest if no one went anywhere for a while, but a quick run to the kitchens wouldn't hurt, would it?"
Elrond frowned. "We can easily have food sent here."
"It won't take but a minute," Merry said. "Pippin and Gandalf could both come, and Pippin could tell Gandalf what would taste good and what would be filling."
Aragorn studied the hobbits, hearing a desperate note from both Merry and Frodo. He recognized the look in their eyes, and he saw it mirrored in Sam and Pippin, odd though it was to see such restlessness on the wizard's weathered face. They needed to move. To get out. To walk away from the study and entertain at least the illusion of walking away from the problem. "I do not see that it would do much harm to stretch our legs for a bit," Aragorn said. "If you are concerned, I will accompany them and distract any who might wish to speak with them."
Elrond hesitated. "I suppose there will be few in the hallways at this time…"
"Not on so beautiful a fall day," Aragorn agreed. "Many will feel the need to be out and about." He said this last with a slight nod toward the hobbits, and Elrond inclined his head.
"So be it. Speak to as few as possible and return quickly."
"We will," Aragorn promised. "Shall we be off?" he asked the hobbits.
"If you help me," Pippin said, struggling upright and promptly overbalancing. Aragorn caught him quickly, and with Galdor's help, they managed to steady him atop wobbly legs.
"Let us go, then," Gandalf said. His growling stomach made him easy to track as he crossed the room. "The sooner we silence this beast, the better."
"Beast," Pippin muttered, swaying precariously. "That's my stomach he's talking about, not some furry creature like this beard."
Aragorn bit back a smile and ushered the hobbit-turned-wizard out of the room.
"Looks like the Gaffer was right, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmured. "Living with elves isn't for the likes of hobbits."
"I think this rates as unusual even by elven standards," Frodo said.
"How are you making out, Pippin?" Merry asked.
Pippin didn't answer, too occupied with the simple act of walking. Until recently, it had just been something one did. A foot went forward, the other followed, and so on. Even after several inebriating hours in the Golden Perch at Stock, walking came more or less naturally to Pippin. But walking atop these long, spindly legs… He could not fathom how Big Folk balanced a form so tall upon feet so small. Surely there was some trick or art to this! And just how had Gandalf adjusted so quickly?
"Take your time," Strider said quietly as they labored forward. "It requires practice for a frame of your size to find its balance."
Pippin scowled. "How much practice?"
"If fortune is kind, more practice than you will be afforded," the Ranger answered. "Fear not! Determined wizards, especially the one of hobbit-size, will not rest until an answer is found."
That sounded hopeful, and Pippin tried to take comfort in Strider's words. But at the moment, all he could see were the retreating backs of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and…himself? …Gandalf? …his form? Pippin shook his head. The point was that the other hobbits were moving much faster than he and Strider. It usually worked the other way around.
Passing through open archways near the Hall of Fire, Pippin glanced outside and spied a tree-lined path winding around the Hall. The cool air, the brisk wind, and the distant sound of rivers called to him, and Pippin felt a strange longing settle in his mind. A faint tremor of music caught his ear, and he stopped, drawn to it. He looked at the others, who had moved ahead since they were not in the habit of slowing down for long-legged companions. They now waited patiently, watching with expectant eyes, but Pippin's heart wasn't in it. Enough was enough. "Strider, would you mind leaving me here?"
Concern flashed across Strider's face. "Are you well? Do you feel—"
"Yes, I'm alright," Pippin said quickly. "But I'm not hungry, and I'm tired of trying to get my legs to move the way I want them to. There's a bench just over there underneath the trees. Would you walk me over to it and then pick me up on your way back when everyone's done in the kitchens? I need a moment to sit."
Sharp eyes studied Pippin closely. "I am not hungry, either," Strider said at length. "And I trust Gandalf to look after himself. He has adjusted very quickly to moving about in a smaller form. If you wish for company—"
"Not really," Pippin interrupted. Something inside him begged for solitude. For separation from others. It was an unusual feeling, but it was insistent.
"As you wish it, then," Strider said, though he sounded reluctant. "Once I have seen the others to the kitchens, I will return and linger nearby should you have need of me."
Together they hobbled out to a stone bench that stood just outside the entrance to the Hall of Fire. After settling himself down and after Strider warned him sternly that he was not to move from his chosen seat, the Ranger retreated back inside. Only moments later, Merry, Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf were outside, wondering what was wrong.
"I'm alright," Pippin insisted. "But I don't have an appetite, it's taking too much energy to walk to the kitchens, and I just want to sit quietly for a spell!"
"I'll stay with you if you like," Merry volunteered.
"I can stay, too," Frodo added.
"And once I've seen to Gandalf's stomach, I'll come straight back," Sam finished.
"Don't let me ruin the afternoon meal," Pippin scoffed. He was inwardly cheered by all the concern, but he still felt the need to be alone. "I'm just getting my bearings, and a bit of quiet will do me good."
Gandalf gave him a shrewd look. "You wish to listen."
"Well…yes. Listen and think and—"
"But listening is what most fascinates you," Gandalf guessed. "Hobbit ears are keen, but the ears you have now can hear things that might otherwise go unnoticed." He nodded and stepped back a pace. "Listen, then. Listen for what you have not heard before." He turned toward the hobbits. "Come. He is perfectly safe here so long as he does not try anything with my form." He glowered at Pippin from beneath a lowered brow. Pippin was quite certain that even if he practiced for several hours in front of a mirror, he could never get his face to do that. "You will stay here, yes?"
"Where else would I go?" Pippin asked. "And how would I get there? I can barely walk with Strider's assistance!"
Gandalf looked satisfied. Merry, Frodo, and Sam looked skeptical. "Will you call us if you need us?" Merry asked, though his tone suggested it was more command than question.
"Go," Pippin said, waving an absurdly long arm toward the hallways. "If I need you, you'll be the first to know. Oh, and Gandalf? I'm partial to those strawberry tarts they sometimes make for dessert."
Seeming to hear Pippin, Gandalf's stomach growled, prompting a half-hearted laugh from Merry and Sam. Frodo and Gandalf gestured them back inside, and Pippin soon found himself alone outside the Hall of Fire. With no other distractions, the tension in his shoulders eased, and he felt as though a great weight lifted from his back. There had simply been too much noise with everyone else around. And there had been too many kinds of noise. As if everyone sounded…well, different. Pippin shook his head. Of course everyone sounded different! But there was more to it than that. Even when they weren't talking, it was as though Pippin could still hear them. Something about the people around him reminded him of…music.
He closed his eyes and leaned back. On the edge of his hearing, so faint that he wondered if he was imagining it, he heard a song. It was difficult to make out, and he couldn't have described it even if he had been able to hear it clearly. But it was like a combination of all the music he kept hearing from everyone else. It carried his thoughts away, and as he let himself drift, he wondered how Gandalf coped with so many sounds and so many different parts of the same song all competing for his attention. At a distance like this, it was peaceful. Soothing, even. But if Gandalf was constantly beset by all the sounds that others made—
Near at hand, Pippin heard some of the music change and shift. Unsure what to make of this, he held still and waited. This was not Pippin's accustomed way of doing things, but it suited his current form. There was great strength in Gandalf's bones, to be sure, yet there was weariness, too. For its sake, Pippin chose patience.
It also helped that he was more or less stuck on his bench.
Letting the cold breeze tickle his chin as it played with his outlandish beard, he listened carefully to the changing music. It drifted closer, and at length, he realized he was not listening to music at all. He was listening to voices. But the voices reflected the music and blended with it in near perfect harmony. Song infused the timbre of words and tones. Wondering what creature could do this, Pippin opened his eyes and found himself staring up at—
"Mithrandir!" an elf greeted with a cheerful smile.
Cleary this elf knew Gandalf. Unfortunately, the current occupant of Gandalf's form did not know this elf. He seemed vaguely familiar, but Pippin was hard-pressed to put a name to the face. The situation became a bit more complicated when the elf suddenly erupted into a flurry of speech that Pippin had no hope of understanding. He knew a bit of elvish thanks to Frodo and Bilbo, but at the elf's speed, Pippin couldn't tell where one word ended and another began.
His translations skills might not have been up to the challenge, but Pippin possessed other skills in abundance. Skills that had made it possible for Tookish relatives to run off on unforeseen adventures and live to tell the tales. Greatly daring, Pippin took a page from their history and made use of the Took family's greatest assets: bold wits. "Your pardon, Master Elf," he interrupted in what he hoped was a wizardly voice. "I am waiting for some hobbits to come by, and I wonder if we might speak in the Common Tongue. That way, they will understand us as they approach and feel more welcome."
"Of course," the elf said, immediately switching languages. Pippin breathed a sigh of relief, for he had discovered a few visiting elves who did not speak Westron at all. "I am glad you told me, for I had intended to search you out and ask questions of you concerning hobbits."
Pippin blinked. "Concerning hobbits?"
"Yes. We wish to know more about them," the elf said. "If a hobbit is to carry our fate into the East, it would be wise to become better acquainted with this hope we have embraced."
Pippin looked around. "We?" he echoed.
"The others I spoke of," the elf answered. Pippin assumed the others were mentioned during the flurry of incomprehensible speech. "We heard your voice outside, and I came to see if you would join us in the Hall."
Knowing he would topple over the moment he tried to stand, Pippin shifted uncomfortably. "Your pardon again, but I fear I am not quite myself today. I thought a bit of fresh air might—"
"A wonderful idea!" the elf exclaimed. "Wait here and I will fetch the others."
The elf turned and hastened away, disappearing into the Hall of Fire. Baffled, Pippin wondered if Aragorn was still nearby to head off this encounter. But as a small group of elves began filing out of the Hall, Pippin decided he would have to continue the charade. "Hobbits," he murmured to himself. "Well, why not? After all, who better to inform them?" His lips began curving up in a smile as a wealth of possibilities occurred to him. "Who better indeed?"
Being unable to see the top of a table was more disconcerting than Gandalf had anticipated. It was also disconcerting to be both welcomed and dismissed all in a single glance. The hobbits seemed to have a working relationship of sorts with the cooks in the kitchens, for the moment they appeared in the doorway, a place was made for them at a side table and supplies set forth. After a word of thanks, Frodo and Sam promptly disappeared, leaving Gandalf with Merry.
"You do this often," Gandalf surmised, watching the elves return to their tasks.
"Often enough that they don't mind when we get underfoot," Merry said. He eyed Gandalf's stomach, which was growling again. "Pippin isn't normally so hungry. Are you certain you haven't done anything to his form?"
Gandalf arched his eyebrows, deciding that height made more of a difference than it should. Merry did not usually challenge him, and elves did not usually ignore him.
"Here we are," Sam announced, interrupting Gandalf's glare. He was pulling two tall stools toward the table the elves had cleared. Frodo followed close behind, pulling another pair of stools. Merry went to help, and the three quickly arranged the seats to their liking before scrambling atop them. Gandalf moved over, driven by his stomach to find something to eat but leery of climbing. He did not have the balance problems that Pippin did. His large hobbit feet provided enough support for his smaller frame that walking had come easily. But climbing…
"Elves like to make things tall," said a voice at his elbow. He looked over to find that Frodo had descended from his perch. With an apologetic look, the hobbit shrugged. "These stools are the only thing that let us sit at the table. But if you want, we can find you a chair and you can stand on it. That might be easier."
"I believe that would be best," Gandalf agreed, giving the table a wary glance. He had never before been uneasy around heights, but the thought of teetering atop such a high seat made his stomach roll in a way that had nothing to do with hunger.
"Half a moment, then," Sam said, jumping down.
"I've also got an idea," Merry added, joining Frodo and Gandalf on solid ground. "Back in a moment," he said as he disappeared behind a table. Gandalf frowned, considering just how much extra effort the hobbits put forth in coping with a taller world.
"This is nothing," Frodo murmured, seeming to guess Gandalf's thoughts. "Merry and I have a cousin in Buckland who raises cows. You should see what he goes through every day."
"Here." From around the table, Merry reappeared with a smell that made Gandalf's mouth water. "These are some of Pippin's favorites. You look as though you might need them. They always seem to help Pippin, so they might help you, too."
He held out a plate of freshly baked strawberry tarts. Gandalf could not fathom how Merry had managed to persuade the cooks to part with them, nor did he care. Almost of its own accord, his hand seized one of the smaller tarts. His stomach voiced an appreciative rumble, and the taste of strawberries filled his mouth. He closed his eyes, lost in the sweet richness of taste. He had enjoyed strawberry tarts before, but never had the flavor been so full. So vibrant. So—
"Is Gandalf alright, Mr. Frodo?"
Gandalf opened his eyes at Sam's concerned voice, but Frodo answered first. "He's enjoying some strawberry tarts.
"Ah." Sam's expression cleared. "Well, that explains it. Here. I've found a chair with a broad seat. It should be perfect for standing on if you can't sit down to enjoy the meal properly."
With a bit of help, Gandalf made his way to the top of the chair and was glad he was not required to climb higher. His balance was not steady enough for anything more adventurous. Licking his lips and enjoying the last of his strawberry tart, he looked over at the elves in the kitchen. "I trust you have some ready excuse as to why you call me Gandalf," he said.
"Merry does," Frodo answered. "He's good at things like that.
"But I doubt we'll have to use it," Merry added. "They don't pay much attention to us once we're set for the afternoon meal."
Not accustomed to being overlooked, Gandalf continued to watch the elves, but none of them gave him so much as a passing glance.
"You ought to have something else, Mr. Gandalf," Sam advised. "Strawberry tart alone won't hold you until supper."
"My hope is to resolve this before then," Gandalf said, but he turned back toward the table.
The elves had provided them with an assortment of meats, cheeses, breads, and fruits. Though somewhat sated by the tart, Gandalf's stomach urged him on, and the plate before him was soon full. He made short work of the bread and meats and was working through the fruit when he caught sight of the strawberry tarts again. Unable to resist, he took another and once again lost himself in a flood of sudden flavor. His eyes closed. His shoulders slumped. His knees wobbled.
Something deep within shifted…
He looked around, not quite trusting hobbit senses. No one else seemed to have noticed anything odd. Turning his focus inward, he probed and tested until finally deciding that he had …settled. He was deeper and more comfortable in Pippin's form. The thought made him frown.
"I see you found the strawberry tarts."
Even from Gandalf's position atop a chair, Aragorn was much taller than he had any right to be. "Have one, Strider," Merry said. "They're almost identical to the ones Aunt Eglantine makes."
"I trust that to be high praise," Aragorn said, helping himself to a tart.
"She's Pippin's mother," Frodo said. "And she makes some of the best strawberry tarts I've ever eaten."
"Or stolen," Merry said with a wry smile.
"That, too," Frodo laughed.
"Pippin's mother makes these?" Gandalf said slowly, a thought occurring to him.
"They're a hallmark of summer," Merry answered. "Pippin and his sisters will strip the strawberry patches bare as soon as possible so Aunt Eglantine can start making them. Once word—or smell—gets out that strawberry tarts are available, Pippin finds himself with a lot more friends than he knew he had."
"No word against my own mum's cooking," Sam added, "but I don't think I've tasted anything quite so fine as those strawberry tarts."
"I'd always bring a plate of them back to Bag End," Frodo said. "Of course, if Pippin came with me, I had to count them every morning and night to make sure I still had them all. They're more valuable than gold to him. Do you think he'd like one, Strider?"
"We should take him one when we go back," Merry decided.
"We should do so now," Gandalf declared, his mind wrapped around an idea. This form was reacting to something familiar and cherished, hence the settling. But if he could unsettle his current form…
"Pippin usually eats a bit more," Merry cautioned, hastily swinging down from his stool to help Gandalf off the chair.
"Then he can fill his own stomach when I return it to him," Gandalf said. "Bring the tarts. And send someone to find Radagast. I have a few questions for him before we begin."
"You mean to say that Elendil consulted hobbits while establishing his reign?"
Pippin leaned forward and nodded, his beard bobbing. "He did. In fact, the wisest of the Northern Kings would visit the Shire often and take counsel with members of the Took family. Why, it is even said that the Thain discovered the secret to athelas, and it was he who—"
"How did hobbits learn to use athelas when it responds best to those of Númenórean descent," asked another elf, his voice skeptical.
"I understood that athelas grew first on Númenor," said an elf near the doorway to the Hall of Fire.
"Nay, it grew first in Beleriand," yet another asserted. "Huan gave it to Lúthien to heal Beren's arrow wound. But it was lost when the lands sank beneath the Sea. It returned to Middle-earth in the hands of the Númenóreans, and it now grows where they camped or settled."
"That still does not explain why the scrolls of Minas Tirith claim hobbits were the ones to learn its properties."
All eyes turned to Pippin. Pippin did his best to manipulate Gandalf's face into something dark and forbidding, though without a mirror, he was uncertain of the effect. He did feel his eyebrows bristling and his beard jutting forward, which he felt counted for something. "You doubt me?" he asked in an indignant tone.
"Yes," said the skeptical elf, folding his arms.
"Or say, rather, that we doubt your lore," another elf added. "If this is what Gondor's records recall, the knowledge of men wanes."
"But why would lore in Minas Tirith make any mention of Halflings?" still another asked.
"Hobbits," Pippin corrected absently. He was trying to wrap his head around the possibility that someone could ignore Gandalf's bristling eyebrows. He would have never considered doing so himself. Was it because he had not mastered the art of wizardly intimidation? Or was it something else? If possessed of enough confidence, could a hobbit do as these elves did?
Someone beyond the encircling elves cleared his throat. The elves ceased arguing amongst themselves and parted to admit Strider and Merry. The latter wore an expression of supreme exasperation. The former looked stern, but the twinkle in his eye suggested he was secretly amused. "Perhaps I should have remained here," Strider said. "You have been busy in my absence." He turned to the elves. "My apologies, friends, for interrupting. But Master Elrond has asked that Gandalf —" he added both emphasis and a weighty glance toward Pippin, "—meet with him in the Hall of Fire. And we would ask not to be disturbed for a time."
The elves broke up, muttering various acknowledgements and requests that the conversation be continued later. Pippin paid them no mind. The prospect of getting his own form back was far too exciting, and he shot to his feet, forgetting that he had still not mastered balancing atop spindly legs. "What did you find?" he hissed as Strider quickly steadied him.
"I found nothing," the Ranger said, "but Gandalf may have. Sam has been sent to fetch a change of clothes as well as Master Elrond and Radagast. Frodo and Gandalf are persuading the cooks to part with a few more strawberry tarts, and they will join us shortly."
Pippin liked the sound of that, particularly the part about strawberry tarts. But he wondered if he would be able to enjoy them. The very thought should have made his mouth water, but his appetite was strangely dormant.
"So, Pippin," Merry began as Pippin and Strider tottered toward the Hall of Fire. "Advisors to Elendil?"
Pippin shrugged. "Things might have turned out better if he'd had a few stout hobbits along."
"Perhaps," Strider chuckled. "At the very least, the Last Alliance would have enjoyed better and more frequent meals if hobbits had been given charge of provisions. But it was my understanding that hobbits did not settle the Shire until the reign of Argeleb II."
"Marcho and Blanco were the first," Merry said, nodding. "They were Fallohidish hobbits from Bree and were probably among the ancestors for both Tooks and Brandybucks."
"But the Shire isn't and wasn't the only place hobbits live," Pippin added. "The old Kings could have talked to hobbits living east of the Misty Mountains."
"Then most likely they would have served as advisors to Isildur and Anárion, not Elendil," Strider said, guiding Pippin through the entrance to the Hall. "Not that it matters, but if you happen upon those elves again, it would make the story more believable."
Merry blinked. "You're supporting him in this?"
Strider's lips twitched. "I speak as I probably should not, but among those elves are some who could do with a good ear-jerking."
Uncertain of his own resolve to make it all the way to the Hall of Fire without eating the entire plate, Gandalf had Frodo carry the strawberry tarts,. He had always wondered where hobbits managed to pack away all that they ate, but the past few hours spent in Pippin's form brought him no closer to an answer. He was almost as hungry now as he had been when they set out for the kitchens.
"It has to do with being a tween," Frodo explained as they walked. "I don't know that I can give you a better answer than that. Pippin usually pockets a treat or two to snack on between now and supper. He also has a little something to eat just before bed. The rest of us don't do that anymore. At least," he amended, "not usually."
"And I thought all your fine hobbit feasts were done out of pleasure rather than necessity."
Frodo shrugged. "We enjoy what we need."
Just outside the Hall of Fire, the pair met Sam, who had with him a small bundle of hobbit-sized clothes. "I found Mr. Radagast," he told them. "He's likely already in the Hall. Master Elrond and the others went with him. I hope that's alright, but I didn't see as I had any say in preventing them."
Gandalf had expected no differently. "You've done well, Master Gamgee."
"I'm glad you think so, sir," Sam said. "I'm sure the elves don't know what to make of me. I've now taken shirts and trousers past the same few elves, and I can only imagine what they think, watching me carry a change of clothes around to odd places in the middle of the afternoon."
"Probably that hobbits are odd folk," Frodo answered. "But they already thought that."
"Quaint folk, perhaps," Gandalf said, feeling the distinction to be important.
"Quaint," Sam said. "I like that."
"It's a polite way of saying rustic," Frodo allowed.
From within the Hall of Fire, voices could be heard. As they approached the entrance, the voices became clearer, and Gandalf frowned as he heard Erestor firmly declare that there was a better chance of the Helcaraxë melting than of Pippin and Gandalf surviving outside Imladris in their current forms.
"I still believe we could put this to some use," Galdor argued as the three entered the Hall. "Perhaps as a lure for Saruman. If he were approached by Mithrandir's form but not by Mithrandir's power—"
"We are not sending Peregrin Took to Isengard as bait," Elrond said flatly. "We have tempted fate enough for one day."
Gandalf loudly cleared his throat. The effect would have been more immediate had he been able to loom properly, but even though his head barely cleared waist-height, he still managed to gain everyone's attention. Over on a side bench, Aragorn, Merry, and Pippin all looked relieved. "I must concur with Master Elrond," Gandalf said. "It would be inadvisable to send either myself or Pippin anywhere. I cannot seem to keep my stomach full, and Pippin does not seem able to stand upright." He turned toward Radagast. "I would speak with you a moment. I have a few questions before proceeding."
Drawing Radagast off into a corner, Gandalf glanced back and watched as Elrond, Erestor, and Galdor resumed their discussion. Pippin and Merry appeared to be informing Frodo and Sam as to the exact nature of the discussion, and Aragorn looked as though he would rather be tracking orcs. Gandalf could hardly blame him.
"Samwise seemed to think that you arrived at a solution," Radagast said, pulling Gandalf's attention away from the others.
"Perhaps," Gandalf hedged. "Earlier, when I was eating—" An angry rumble interrupted him, and he paused to glare at his stomach. "When I was eating," he continued, "I chanced upon a treat that reminds Pippin of the Shire and of his childhood."
"Strawberry tarts," Radagast guessed, glancing toward Frodo and his plate of pastries. "Pippin seems interested in them."
"But he is not eating them," Gandalf pointed out. "As for myself, I could not resist them. And while eating my second tart, I felt a…shift. As though I settled further into this form."
Radagast pursed his lips. "The elves put much stock in the power of the fëa over the hröa, but I have observed that the hröa has a power of its own: a power of memory and feeling that can be just as compelling as the will of the fëa." Radagast's eyes narrowed and he studied Gandalf for a moment. "You are holding tighter to Pippin's form than you were earlier."
"That is what must be reversed," Gandalf said. "We must find a way to unsettle me. Perhaps then I will release my hold on this form, however that is done."
"It would seem to me that being unsettled is what caused the problem in the first place. Had you been settled in your own form, you would have never seized upon another's." The other wizard frowned. "You say Pippin enjoyed strawberry tarts as a child?"
"So I was told."
Radagast nodded slowly. "What did you feel as you were eating them?"
Gandalf gave the matter some thought. "Summer," he said at length. "Laughter. Voices I cannot hear clearly. As though this form holds a memory of…" He trailed off, searching for words.
"Of home," Radagast supplied. "Of safety and peace. Valar, I was a fool not to see it earlier! It explains all!"
Whatever explanation Radagast had uncovered still escaped Gandalf. "What explains all?" he demanded.
"Home. Safety. Peace. From all you have told me, these things are what hobbits value." Radagast gave him a shrewd look. "How long has it been since you felt such things?"
Gandalf bristled, wishing he had a beard so that it could do likewise. "The struggle against Sauron has not allowed me to—"
"You mean you have not allowed yourself," Radagast countered quickly. "As a result, there has been little in which you could trust over these long years of defeat. Then Isengard dealt you a grievous blow: One whom you believed to be a stalwart and true friend turned from us. And has been turning from us for quite some time. Thus, friendship and wisdom are no longer to be trusted. Indeed, after seeing our brother's betrayal, you can trust no one, not even yourself. But you must trust in something, and in brushing against Pippin's form, you discovered the hobbit's trust in home. You felt the strength upon which hobbits rely. And you seized it, refusing to give it up even when your own form was cast aside. We must release your grip on this trust of home if we are to release your grip on Pippin's form."
"Then I must find something to clutch more fiercely than Pippin's memory of home," Gandalf said. He pursed his lips and looked over at their companions. "What most compels our forms?" he murmured.
Radagast shook his head. "For you, it is your stewardship. But that is not what you need. As I said before, what you need is trust. Hope. Something that can lend strength when you have none. Like Pippin, you need to find something that speaks of home, and when you do, I think you will release your hold on both his home and his form. I now believe them to be one and the same." Radagast paused, his expression unreadable. "You never made a home in these Hither Lands as the rest of us did. Rather, you became the wanderer. But it was not always so. How long has it been since your thoughts turned toward the West? Truly turned? How long has it been since you allowed your mind and your sight to drift along the Straight Path."
"Too long," Gandalf admitted. "My attention has been needed in the East, not the West, and I found my place in the struggle to rally Sauron's enemies against him."
"A place is not a home."
"Then find home now. I believe that is the answer for which we are searching."
Gandalf stared at Radagast. "It cannot be that simple."
The response was a bitter smile. "Did not Saruman name me Radagast the Simple? But as you have named me, I am a master of shape and hue. These things are simple. In this, Saruman was truthful, though I doubt he knew it. And that, at least, you may trust."
It still seemed too easy. Gandalf cringed to think the word, but it seemed too simple. Yet Radagast was in earnest. And something about the thought of home—of the West—tugged at Gandalf. Perhaps it was his hobbit form. Perhaps it was the long years he had been away. Perhaps it was the wound in his heart, still festering from Saruman's betrayal. But whatever it was, Gandalf decided to try Radagast's plan immediately. He probably should have informed the others, but this touched upon things too personal to reveal. And should he fail, he did not want to raise their hopes.
Taking a deep breath, Gandalf closed his eyes. It was time to not only look like a hobbit. It was time to think like one. To find his hope and his strength the same way that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin did. Thus he cast his thoughts away from Imladris, beyond the trees and the water and the protective cliffs. He sent his mind soaring over Eriador, passing above the Great Road and the villages and the Shire. Calling upon the fires of Narya, he followed Arien's flaming path as it soared into the uttermost West. And in return, music answered him. It rang out through pillared halls, clear and bright. Calling. Waiting. Warming. Welcoming.
For the first time in millennia, the wandering pilgrim dreamed himself home.
And as he did so, he felt a shift…
Given the fuss that the change of forms had created, the restoration of forms proved oddly anticlimactic. The most dramatic happening was the initial surprise as Pippin found himself suddenly dwarfed by Gandalf's robes and Gandalf felt himself explode out of hobbit clothes. A quick change of apparel ensured there would be no need for creative explanations should anyone enter the Hall of Fire.
"That was good thinking, bringing the plate," Pippin said through a mouthful of strawberry tart.
"I think it was meant to have another purpose," Frodo said. "But maybe it wasn't needed after all.
"Wasn't needed?" Pippin exclaimed. "It doesn't feel as if Gandalf ate anything when he was in the kitchens!"
"Not as much as you usually eat. And don't talk with your mouth full," Merry admonished.
"Is there a danger of this happening again?" Aragorn asked.
"No," Gandalf said, feeling more certain of himself than he had since Orthanc. Hope had settled in his heart, and he felt the confidence of those who had sent him so many years ago. "There is not."
"Then I believe it is time for the strong Dorwinion," Elrond declared. "Erestor?"
Erestor started moving toward the door. "Over drinks, perhaps Mithrandir and Radagast might share with us what solution they devised."
Gandalf and Radagast traded looks. "Perhaps," Gandalf said with no intention of fulfilling Erestor's request.
"I must beg off, for I feel the need to find a place of peace after all this," Radagast said. He winked at Gandalf, smiled at the hobbits, and took his leave. Erestor followed.
"More for the rest of us," Galdor said. "Shall we?"
But they had not even reached the doorway before Lindir appeared, calling for Mithrandir. "Radagast and Erestor said you had concluded your business here," he explained. "If that is the case, then I wonder if Mithrandir and I might continue our conversation. I wish to know the origin of the claim that hobbits served as advisors to Elendil."
Gandalf blinked. Elrond stared. After a moment of stunned silence, there was a suspicious coughing fit behind Galdor after which Aragorn hastily excused himself and hastened out the door. From the corner of his eye, Gandalf noted that Merry and Pippin seemed to be edging after him.
"Advisors to Elendil?" Elrond echoed slowly. "Whence came this idea?"
"That was my question," Lindir said. "Mithrandir was most insistent—"
"When did you hold this discussion?" Galdor interrupted.
"Just before your meeting here in the Hall."
Gandalf arched one bristling eyebrow and slowly turned toward Pippin. The hobbit swallowed and shrugged his shoulders as if to feign innocence, but Gandalf was having none of it. Face darkening, brow furrowing, and eyes narrowing, he directed his most baleful glare at the erring Took.
"Mr. Frodo, didn't you say that—"
"Yes, Sam, it's just about time for—"
"I've got some of Uncle Merimac's cream if you want to—"
All four hobbits followed Aragorn's example, slipping neatly behind Lindir and disappearing out the door. But not before Pippin startled everyone by responding to bristling wizard eyebrows with a mischievous grin.
Despite himself, Gandalf felt his own lips twitch in response. He carefully composed his face and turned to Lindir, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "You do not think Elendil could have used a few hobbit advisors?" he asked, relishing the feel of facial hair.
"Do you?" Lindir challenged.
Gandalf took out his pipe and tapped a few crushed leaves into it. Ignoring a chorus of protests as well as Elrond's stern declaration that all smoking was to be done outside, he lit the leaves and took a few contented puffs. "I will not venture a guess as to how hobbits may have helped Elendil, but I will say this: There is much to be gained by walking a mile in a hobbit's shape and hue."
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