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In Empty Lands: 29. More than Meets the Eye
Note on chapter length: The
For CEShaughnessey, Julchen, Starli-ght. SivanShamesh, and KayleeLupin for their birthdays.
More than Meets the Eye
For three days and nights it rained, a drenching rain that left even the Elf Legolas with a testy temper. There appeared to be nowhere to take shelter from the downpour, and even Boromir's warm cloak, carefully oiled and lined with fur as it was, became sodden. Now and then the rain would turn to sleet, and twice to snow, although none of it stuck upon the ground, thank the stars! The Hobbits reluctantly drew on the boots with which they had been fitted, but none of them appeared to find them comfortable. Neither Merry nor Frodo made any open complaint, but Sam kept muttering about how such things just weren't natural, and Pippin repeatedly asked Merry how the Hobbits of Buckland could bear to wear such things while they kept the flood watch along the banks of the Brandywine.
Boromir found himself growing tired of hearing the complaints, and especially so since he was himself so uncomfortably wet and exhausted. They'd found no real shelter from the damp in which to camp, and it was impossible to sleep restfully when no matter how well they sought to protect themselves the rain seemed to find its way past carefully strung canvas tarps or layered evergreen boughs to fling itself against their faces.
Perhaps it was hearing Pippin constantly comment on how hungry he was that for some reason tested Boromir's patience the most. Certainly the Captain of Gondor's armies must have been at least as hungry as the youngest and smallest of the Hobbits, but he wasn't complaining about that fact several times an hour! Not that they were stinted on food, of course—Lord Elrond had seen to it that their stores would see them a good long way. But one did get tired after a time of trail rations such as jerked meats, dried fruits, and various nuts and seeds roasted in salt and oil, particularly as finding dry wood for a fire had proved a thankless exercise for two days.
Boromir, seated near Gimli at their latest campsite ere they started on the third night's tramp, shuddered as he heard Pippin once more murmur, "I'm hungry, Merry!"
"What is the use of bringing so many Hobbits on this fool's journey?" he grumbled for the Dwarf's ear only. "They are all but helpless, after all."
He did not think that the Hobbits had heard him, but Frodo's behavior toward him through that night's march was decidedly cool and formal, while Sam appeared to be pointedly ignoring him.
Sometime after the middle night the rain finally stopped, and as the sky began to go grey with the false dawn it cleared to the point that some stars could be seen shining far toward the western horizon. "It should be a fair day today," Aragorn commented.
"From your lips to the ears of Lord Manwë," muttered Legolas. "The Belainhave protected us so far from detection, it would appear, but we could be far more comfortable than we've been for the past three days."
Boromir certainly appreciated the Elf's observation!
Aragorn appeared to be quite familiar with the region. "This area held many of the principle towns and settlements of Rhudaur," he explained. "There are many streams throughout the region, and there was a large town built about a series of mineral and hot springs a quarter-day's journey from where I propose we camp for the next two days."
All of them perked up at the idea of staying put for more than a single day. "You think we need such a rest?" Boromir asked.
Gandalf shrugged. "I am not certain about all of us, of course, but I strongly suspect that I am not the only one whose clothing is wet all through. We need to be able to see our packs dried out and our goods checked to make certain that the rain hasn't ruined much of our stores. And we could all do with a change of clothing and perhaps a soak in one of the hot springs of which Aragorn speaks. I must admit that I'd forgotten about those—personally, I would find them a most welcome break to our journey. It might give us a good chance to see what we've been wearing properly cleaned and dried as well."
The line reformed, and all appeared to be far more cheerful for the rest of the night's walk than they'd been for quite some time.
"Was this once a village of some sort?" asked Pippin as they reached the area where Aragorn intended they stay.
The Ranger nodded absently, turning to help Sam with the unloading of faithful Bill. "According to some of the maps in the Last Homely House this was once a village known as Standis. There is something particularly wholesome about it to this day, and evil creatures tend to avoid it. Our Rangers will camp here when we must venture in this direction, and we find it a welcome respite."
"Why not camp closer to the hot springs?" demanded Boromir, who found he would warmly welcome a good hot soak at this point in the proceedings.
Aragorn shrugged as he handed one of the hampers carrying jerked meats to Pippin. "The ruins of the town where they are to be found were built in the foothills of the mountains. We will need to approach them with caution, for more than once I've come upon mountain trolls and orcs there. Why they come there rather than here is the puzzle, I've always thought."
"Is there a stream nearby?" asked Frodo.
Aragorn indicated a slight gully to the west of them with a jerk of his head. "Down there, and the water has always been good here. That is another bad side to camping nearer to the hot springs—the water there is so full of minerals that it sours almost everything one tries to cook with it."
The pony was quickly unloaded—already their stores were much depleted, Boromir realized, and many of the bags and hampers were empty, being carried on more to avoid leaving signs for possible enemies following in their wake than for any true need of them.
Boromir found himself examining what could be seen of the outline of the village that once stood here. One could tell how some of the lanes used to run, and there were two places where stone walls rose breast high on Boromir, well over the head of young Pippin, he noted. Too bad they'd not reached this far in their journey prior to the rains—they could have strung the tarps over the whole party with the benefit of the walls to two sides and saved them all a soaking! Ah, but they could not have come much faster than they had, he realized as he settled his pack into a hollow he chose for himself that appeared to have possibly once been a hearth.
All were surprised when Frodo pulled Sam aside, along with Merry and Pippin. "I'm sorry, Gandalf, if you'd hoped to have Sam fix our dawn meal today," the Baggins said, "but you will have to do your own chores this morning. I fear I need the others to help me, since I have drawn first watch."
Gandalf exchanged curious looks with Aragorn, but no one wished to go against the wishes of the Ringbearer, or so it appeared. But it proved that Frodo was not done. "Aragorn, you say that the northern Rangers come this far. Is it like Weathertop? Is there a cache of wood to be found?"
"Well, it is likely there will be one in that ruin there, beneath an overhanging slab." The Ranger indicated a ruin where the stones were more regular, although they didn't rise more than two feet from the ground.
"Pippin, fetch wood from that cache to Gandalf for the breakfast fire, and then you and Merry are to fetch up water from the stream. Now, go!" He went on to confer with Sam for some minutes. Sam gave a glance at the rest of the Fellowship, returned his attention to Frodo, gave a grunt of acquiescence, and set off away from the camp to do whatever Frodo had told him to do.
"What is going on?" asked Gandalf of Pippin as the young Hobbit brought him an armload of wood.
Pippin wiped his face with his sleeve. "I'm not certain, but he's definitely on his dignity this morning. I've not seen him this much in head-of-the-family mode since he caught Lotho trying to lease one of Cousin Posco's properties to a Bracegirdle cousin of his as if the place were Lotho's own. Posco's former tenant had been a sweet little old widow, Cornflower Delver, if I recall her name correctly, and she'd been dead about a month. Posco hadn't thought to let it again until he consulted with Missus Cornflower's nieces and nephews as to whether anyone else in her family would like to take it; so when Augustus Bracegirdle asked Lotho about its availability, Lotho pretended it was his. And if Frodo wasn't upset about that!"
"Peregrin Took, if you are done with the wood, go down and help Merry bring up water for cooking and tea!" Frodo's voice was sharp with command, and with an apologetic glance at the others Pippin turned away to join his Brandybuck cousin down by the stream.
Gandalf soon had a thick porridge ready, and with some of the honey they'd brought along and small chunks of dried apple stirred into it as well as a cup of rose hip tea to drink, all felt satisfied. Boromir found himself feeling particularly tired, and he soon retired to the place he'd chosen on the old hearth, wrapped himself up with his cloak, and with his head pillowed upon his pack he was swiftly—and deeply—asleep, listening to Pippin arguing with Merry as to whether he should wash or dry the metal dishes they'd eaten from before he was aware of nothing more.
"Please, Boromir, turn over and take this blanket so I can take your cloak and brush it clean! Please!" A period of silence, and the pleading began again. "Frodo won't let me do anything else until I see your cloak brushed and aired. Pleeeaase, Boromir? Please let me take it!" Someone was pushing at his shoulder, but it wasn't worthwhile for him to come completely awake to see what the problem was. He wrapped his familiar cloak about himself more tightly and turned over, toward the former chimney and away from the annoying hand.
"No! No, you can't do that! You're supposed to let me take your cloak and see it aired! Merry, he just has it wrapped tighter around him!"
"Well, I don't know what you expect me to do about it, Pip."
"You could try to help!"
"I can't exactly force him to roll over the other way and give it to you, you know. And Frodo has me cleaning people's boots. You're the one he put in charge of brushing and airing cloaks, not me!"
"Won't someone please help me?"
"Here—let me." Someone came quite close. "Here, Captain Boromir, sir—what will your men think if'n they should see you lookin' like somethin' as the cat drug in? Let me take your cloak, and take this blanket instead. It's dry and warm, at least. Sit up, please, now, and we'll switch them over. That's it, sir. Now, you lie back down and wrap up in that blanket, and we'll have your cloak back to you afore you even realize as it's been gone. Here, Pippin. That worked like a charm, didn't it?"
"I don't know how you did it, Sam. That was masterful!"
"Heh! Well, it's not like I've not had lots of practice with the Gaffer comin' home late from the Green Dragon. Ew! It will do well for a nice brushin' and an airin', too—a nice long airin', at that. Smells like sweat and rusty iron! Must be that metal shirt as him's a-wearin'."
"Thank you again, Sam, and if I can return the favor…."
Boromir shook himself slightly, pulled the blanket about him, and laid himself back down to return to a deep sleep, barely remembering the interruption to his dreams. He and Faramir were walking by the river, talking and floating boats made of bundles of reeds in the Anduin's current, imagining them finding their way through the Mouths of the Sea and all the way to the tip of Meneltarma….
It was apparently midafternoon when he awoke, judging by the angle of the light. The camp was quiet, with no sound of light conversation from the Hobbits, but no sound of their deeper breathing while they slept, either. He sat up blinking. "The little ones—where are they?" he asked of Aragorn, who sat nearby, repairing a tear in one of the bags used to carry whatever root vegetables were found as they walked.
Aragorn shrugged as he finished his work. "Frodo has had them out doing this and that most of the day. He appears intent on having the Hobbits do most of what needs doing for our camp today." He tied a knot, and used his knife to cut short the thread he'd been using. He indicated the area where he'd stated the stream was to be found. "Right now Frodo is down at the stream, I believe, while Merry and Pippin have been told off to fetch in enough wood for tonight and the morning, with some left over to leave in the cache. Sam set a few snares this morning, and has been out looking for whatever other foodstuffs he might find for the last hour or so."
"Who is on watch?" the Gondorian asked.
"Legolas and Gandalf. You and Merry are scheduled to go on the next watch, I believe."
Boromir nodded his understanding. He looked down, and was puzzled to realize he was holding one of the extra blankets tight about himself. "My cloak!"
The northerner nodded over toward the far wall of the ruin in which they were camped where several cloaks flapped in a light breeze. "It is there, airing out alongside those of the rest of us. And a most difficult time did you give Pippin when he tried to take it from you." He smiled with amusement. "I would say that you were the most exhausted I have seen you yet, my friend. You absolutely refused to awaken enough to give it to him! It fell to Sam to coax it away from you. And it would appear that it was indeed deeply in need of a good airing, considering the comments the Hobbits were making about it."
"I barely remember. There is no question that I was but a hair's breadth from collapse once we settled here." Boromir thought for a moment. "Is it wise for the Ringbearer to be alone down by the stream?"
Aragorn again shrugged. "Gimli went after him to keep an eye out for his safety. Our hardy Dwarf will prove enough of a guard for him, I suspect."
"And what is Frodo doing down there?"
"Proving himself useful, I suspect. He was muttering something about the Hobbits pulling their own weight whilst we are upon this journey." He paused and eyed Boromir. "You didn't say anything about the Hobbits being a burden to the rest of us, did you?"
Boromir shrugged elaborately. "And why should I speak of such a thing?" he asked evasively.
Aragorn sighed and rose to his feet. "Well, I have been more of use than I've wished to be this day. I will now rest, I think." He withdrew to where his bedroll was laid out and removed his boots. "I am glad enough to be shut of these for a time and to allow them to air out," he grimaced. "If Merry and Pippin return soon see to it that the fire is kept up, and stack the excess wood in the next ruin over. Pippin can show you where the cache of wood was found. It is now my turn to sleep deeply, I trow." He was soon asleep, warmly wrapped in two blankets.
Boromir found the area where the others had been relieving themselves, and soon was back and seeing to the state of the small fire. A broth was simmering, and he took a mug of it, sipping it gratefully and allowing it to warm his stomach. He was sitting quietly, enjoying the feeling of warmth, when he heard logs hit the ground, and looked up, startled, to find that Merry and Pippin were back, each wearing upon his back the special carriers worn by those set to fetch larger amounts of wood back to the camp. Merry had dumped the wood he'd been carrying in his arms upon the ground by the fire, and was shrugging out of the carrier so that he could empty it as well, while Pippin was just beginning to do much the same. "I think," Merry said with weary satisfaction, "that not even Frodo can complain that we've not brought enough."
Pippin nodded his agreement. "There were a number of limbs about felled by high winds," he noted. "And I found a place where the ground is softer where there are a number of cattails. I'm not certain that the roots are at their best, but they at least are edible. Sam is checking them out." He reached to help Merry unload his carrier, and Boromir found himself bending to aid the two Hobbits. Each, he realized, had been carrying much the same sized load he would have brought had he been the one fetching the wood. "Oh----" Pippin added, "you especially are not to help us. Frodo wants for us Hobbits to do most of the camp work for today. So you need to go back and sit down over there again. We'll take care of the wood."
Boromir suspected he was flushing as he returned to the hearth area and took his seat again, pulling the blanket tight around his shoulders once more. He strongly suspected now that the Ringbearer had overheard his thoughtless comment uttered the preceding night.
The two younger Hobbits swiftly had a decent stack of wood by the circle where Gandalf had established their cooking fire, and were soon carrying the extra toward the ruin where Aragorn had indicated the Rangers' cache had been left. He looked about and saw that the houseplace in which they were camped had been swept clean of twigs, leaves, pebbles, and dirt, the sweepings contained in a corner from which they could be removed easily to lay over the area before they left to hide easy recognition that someone had camped here. Several cloaks, including Aragorn's, flapped from the tree stem leaning against the far wall on which his own hung for airing. The kettle was filled and sat by the fire, waiting only to be placed over it to provide for tea, as these northerners referred to the herbal drink. Bill the pony had been comfortably brushed and hobbled, and was contentedly munching from the contents of his nosebag. Aragorn slept easily enough under his pair of blankets, and at the edge of the village's ruins he could just make out the outline of the Wizard where he sat almost immobile in the shadows cast by the remains of some ancient chimney, also wrapped in a blanket. It was anyone's guess where Legolas might have hidden himself—most probably he was high in a tree's branches, from which he could see without being easily seen himself.
He heard approaching voices, one comparably high and the other a low rumble, and realized that Frodo and Gimli were returning from the stream. Frodo carried a string of recently cleaned fish and had four waterskins slung from his shoulders, while the Dwarf carried three more. Both were smiling—until Frodo caught sight of Boromir, at which time his expression became reserved. Oh, yes, there was no question that Frodo had heard him. "Frodo," the Gondorian grunted. "Gimli. You are seeing to dinner for us, then?"
"Oh," Gimli said, his eyes flicking from Frodo's face to the Man's and back again, "but this is all Frodo's doing. It was all I could do to get him to allow me to carry some of the water bottles back up from the stream. It's good water here, I must say. Good, but cold."
"You had morning watch," Boromir commented to the Hobbit. "You ought to have slept by now."
"I will do so as soon as Sam returns from checking his snares and his foraging," Frodo responded primly. "There was much to see to if we are to be comfortable today. He promised that if I could provide the fish he would see them cooked properly for our supper." He set the fish into their largest pot, and filled it with fresh water from one of the skins he'd carried. "This should hold the fish for the moment, at least."
Pippin took the two newcomers' cloaks and hung them by the others while Merry provided both Frodo and the Dwarf with a blanket each. "Both your cloaks will be aired by this evening," Merry commented as he returned to the fireside.
It was then that Sam returned, whistling as he came, two grouse and a hare hanging from his belt and with a filled foraging bag slung over his back. "We're in luck, Master," he hailed them. "I found some garlic in a protected glade, and some more of them onions such as Pippin found yesterday. And some cattails—Mr. Pippin found those, too. Most of it's past its prime, but some of the roots are edible. We'll eat well tonight. How many fish did you bring us? My, but that'll provide us with quite the feast!"
Frodo and Pippin were soon bedded down in the corner the Hobbits had claimed as their own, and Merry and Boromir went to relieve Gandalf and the Elf. Gimli now took the hearth area for his own sleep, and the Man was glad to see him comfortably snoring as he went out of the houseplace.
Gandalf gave the Man a sidelong look. "Did you sleep well, Boromir?" he asked.
Boromir shrugged. "Well enough."
"What did you say to put Master Baggins on his dignity?"
Boromir felt himself stiffen. "And what gives you to believe I did such a thing?"
Gandalf sighed. He'd been turning his pipe between his fingers, which he did more and more often lately, pipeweed being in short supply by this time in their journey. "You forget, Boromir Denethor's son, that I have known you all of your life, and that I have known Frodo well for thirty-eight years, and knew ofhim before that. You said something, although I doubt that you did so to him, perhaps about how little use such things as Hobbits are. And even though you did not realize it at the time, he heard you. The hearing of Hobbits is far keener than that of Men, almost as much so as the hearing of Elves, you will find. But that of Frodo Baggins…." He paused, casting a quick glance back at the ruins of the long-empty village and the walls that protected those who slept within its bounds. "Since he was stabbed with the Morgul knife he has demonstrated far keener hearing than is normal even for his kind. He has indicated he heard parts of conversations taking place outside the House of Elrond, down by the river, conversations he ought not to have heard from the confines of his room or that of Bilbo. There is little that is said amongst us that he does not hear and ponder upon. And should he believe that the honor of his people is being judged lightly, he will respond.
"You are perhaps lucky not to be subjected to another spell of miserably bad luck such as you knew after being disrespectful toward his mushrooms at Yule. Be glad, I suppose, that he is merely intent on proving that he, Sam, and his cousins are capable of doing all they can for the comfort of the rest of us. But I suggest that you find a way to apologize fairly soon, or I fear he will work himself and the others into a state of exhaustion."
The Wizard rose. "Well, I intend to sleep some myself while I can. Keep a good watch on things, and think on the advice I've given you."
Boromir watched as the Wizard returned to the damaged house, then turned his eyes outward, watching and listening, and wondering how he was to apologize to Frodo Baggins. He realized he was still wearing the blanket about his shoulders, and wished for his cloak. When Legolas tapped him upon the shoulder he jumped with surprise, then smiled gratefully as the Elf presented him with his cloak.
"Sam is certain that it has aired quite long enough," Legolas said. "He intends to cook the fish while they are still fresh, and I will gladly bring you some when they are finished."
"I thank you," the Man returned. "I've had but some broth since I awoke."
Legolas nodded his understanding, but paused before he returned to the camp. "I have sensed no other beings about us, not for many miles. Your watch should remain quiet. It is a good time to reflect upon the need to be careful in what one says within the hearing of Master Baggins there. And I have noted that his hearing is remarkably keen, far more so than that of the other Hobbits. He was not pleased to hear you comment last evening that his people were useless. I would say that he is intent on proving you wrong."
Boromir bit back the retort he first thought to utter, and merely grunted his acceptance of the Elf's advice. It would appear that everyone was aware that Frodo Baggins was upset with him, and he realized as Legolas returned to the camp once more that he was even chiding himself for his thoughtless remark.
Aragorn and Sam took the next watch, and Boromir returned to the houseplace to find all in readiness for the next day, and a final mug of rosehip tea awaiting him, a welcome touch at the beginning of what promised to be a restful night. His bedroll lay ready in his chosen place on the former hearth, and even his blankets appeared to have been aired while he was on guard. He had to admit that the dinner of fish, stewed prunes, and cattail roots cooked in some manner he did not understand had been a pleasant change from what they'd been forced to eat for the last few days while they'd camped and trudged in equally cheerless conditions, their clothing and blankets damp all through. Certainly the thought that tomorrow they might luxuriate in a hot mineral spring lifted his spirits well, and he suspected the others also looked forward to the proposed trip to the ruinous city where the baths were said to lie with pleasant anticipation.
Legolas lay somewhat apart from the rest, singing softly to himself as he looked up into a sky that had been swept clear of clouds overhead. Frodo sat nursing his own mug of tea, listening to the Elf's fair voice with an expression of intense longing on his face. Gimli was sharpening and oiling his weapons, while Merry and Pippin lay in their adjoining bedrolls, murmuring quietly between them. Gandalf sat with his staff leaning against his shoulder, rubbing his hand slowly up and down its length, his thoughts as unfathomable to the Gondorian as they usually were. Boromir ached to make things up with Frodo, but sensed that to interrupt the Hobbit's mood at the moment would be perhaps even a greater offense than his comment the previous evening. He knew that were his brother here, Faramir would be as drawn to the Elf's song as was Frodo Baggins. Boromir could not personally appreciate that love of the ineffable that the Ringbearer and his brother unknowingly shared, but he could not deny their desire for what was beyond mortal experience. At last the Man fell asleep, the quarrel still not made up.
Breakfast was rather hurried, for Aragorn wished them to make their journey to the hot springs rapidly and to see what clothing they could see done washed and dried before they resumed their trek southwards at sunset. He knew of another sheltered spot not far outside the ruins of the old spa city where they might possibly look to remain at rest for much of the afternoon. Boromir felt rather useless, for Gimli had helped in the loading of their remaining stores on Bill's back, while Aragorn had seen most of the bedrolls and packs readied and the Hobbits saw to the refilling of the water bottles one last time as well as their dawn meal readied. He thanked Pippin as the youngest Hobbit brought him his tin plate and mug, and was grateful for Frodo's ability to cook as he swiftly devoured the rations served him. All food prepared by the Hobbits seemed equally filling and delicious, but something about Frodo's cooking was particularly delicate, reminding him more of the food he'd liked best when he was not yet a Man grown. If only he could cook even half so well!
Within a relatively short time they were on their way southeast. They'd been going scarcely half a mark as Gondorians told the time when Frodo paused and raised his hand, indicating a particularly green patch ahead of them.
"There is something wrong about the land there," he said. "I suspect there is an underground spring, considering the reeds and marshsweet growing about the area. In winter, however, the growth shouldn't be this green."
Aragorn nodded his agreement, and indicated a route northwards of their previous path. "Let us give the questionable ground a wide berth," he suggested, and they turned aside and resumed their march.
But apparently the ground here had been softened by the recent rains as well as runoff from the mountains ahead. Suddenly Sam gave a cry of dismay and Bill a neigh of fear as their feet sank down into marshy ground, Bill rapidly sinking to his hocks.
"More bog!" Sam growled, casting a meaningful glance at the Northern Ranger.
"At least there aren't the midges from our last trip through a marsh," muttered Merry.
The Dwarf started forward to assist Sam, only to be waved back by Frodo. "No, Gimli, for you will only sink the faster in those steel-toed boots of yours. Best leave this to us Hobbits, and perhaps to Legolas. And thank you, Boromir," he said, turning his gaze toward the Man, who'd also taken a few steps toward the pony and Sam, "but the same is true of you. Gandalf, if you'll use your staff to probe the ground, perhaps you can establish the closest to Sam and Bill where you Big Folk can stand so we can pass the parcels from Bill to you to make it easier to get him out of the mud."
Frodo and Pippin picked their way to Bill's side, and while Sam kept the pony soothed and reassured, the two Hobbits saw to unloading it, passing each package and carrier to Merry, who in turn passed it to whichever person seemed best able to see to its security. Frodo and Pippin were the lightest and barely sank into the softened ground, while Merry had to carefully pull his feet from the boggy earth more than once, or so Boromir noted. Legolas was able to carry several of the larger carriers free of the animal without so much as dampening his soft leather boots from what the Man could tell.
By the time the pony was unloaded Bill had sunk in at least two additional inches. Now it was combined work by the four Hobbits and Legolas that was needed to get the pony free. Aragorn used a pair of scissors he carried in his healer's bag to cut wide swatches of fabric from some of the empty sacks, and Legolas brought them to Frodo, who now stood holding Bill's bridle, murmuring softly into the animal's ear. "Here, Bill—we shall work each foot free, one by one, and make it easier for you to walk out of the soft ground." He handed the first swatch to Sam, who examined the pony's stance and at last placed it carefully where Bill's right front foot could reach it, once it was free of the earth's suction. "Sam will take your hoof now and help work it free. Don't fight him—he shall do his best to cause you no further discomfort. Now, there his hands are, on your leg. Lift that foot—only that one. That's right…."
The Elf sang as Sam worked to free each foot and as Pippin and Merry set their shoulders against the pony's haunches to aid its strength as each leg was freed. It wasn't finished swiftly, but still it took a shorter time than Boromir had anticipated for Bill to stand trembling on solid ground once more on the other side of the marshy area. With the swatches of fabric under his hoofs, he was able to step forward without his feet sinking immediately again into the softened earth, and he gathered confidence with each pace forward he made. Gandalf found the most solid ground for the others to cross over carrying their supplies, and while Sam groomed the pony's legs and withers, they replaced its load and were soon ready to resume their journey again.
Before the Sun was much past her zenith they were in sight of a ruinous tower and tumbled walls that Aragorn indicated marked the boundaries of the old city. They waited again in a thicket as Aragorn and Legolas went ahead to search for possible enemies. At the Ranger's signal the remaining seven went forward to join the Man and the Elf, and followed them to the area where the Rhudaurim had established the baths.
While Sam and the Elf saw to Bill's further comfort and with Gandalf taking the watch, the others divested themselves of their clothes and immersed themselves in the steaming water. "I'm glad that the smell of the water isn't bad," Merry said as he let himself sink up to his chin.
"I've seen worse in the mineral springs outside Casistir along the way to Dol Amroth in my own lands," Boromir agreed. "Ah, but it is good to feel warm all over one's body, is it not?"
"It's the warmest I've felt since we left Rivendell," Gimli said. "I will admit that were the weather warmer even I would have soon been offended by my own odor."
Boromir realized that somehow Frodo had joined them without his noticing. The Hobbit's chest was bare, and he caught but a glimpse of gold as Frodo dropped to his knees in the water. The Man's attention was drawn to a reddened scar on Frodo's chest not far from his right shoulder. "That looks painful, Master Frodo," he commented.
Frodo's face went pale, although his cheeks grew decidedly pink as he glanced at what he could see of the place. "It is little enough, considering how much it hurt when the Wraith stabbed me," he said in a tone Boromir judged was intended to be dismissive.
Aragorn caught the Gondorian's eye, and indicated it was best to let the subject go, and Boromir nodded his understanding. Still his curiosity was piqued, although he held his tongue.
Pippin ducked his head under the surface, and came up again blowing and snorting. "Oh water hot!" he crowed, once he could speak again. "I'd not thought to enjoy a warm bath again until we got back to civilized places once more. Are there any civilized places we'll pass through from here on in, Strider?" he asked.
"If we continue on southward we shall pass through Rohan," Boromir assured them. "The Rohirrim are not as fond of bathing as are we of Gondor, but they do enjoy a nice hot bath by the fire from time to time. And once we reach Gondor itself, there baths are very popular indeed."
"Once one is through Anórien, at least," Aragorn commented. "The people of Anórien tend to be more suspicious of being too clean than do those further south in Gondor."
Boromir was surprised. "And what do you know of the people of Anórien?" he demanded.
Aragorn shook his head. "Do not think that I have never visited Gondor," he said, a wry smile on his face. "Oh, it was quite some time ago, I will admit, but I made shift to visit most of the known lands of Middle Earth when I was younger, back before I must take up the full burden of my duties to my own people."
Frodo leaned back, pillowing his head against a block of stone that partially emerged from the pool in which they lounged. "I only rejoice that we are comfortable and apparently safe for the moment."
"You didn't answer me," Pippin persisted, his attention on Aragorn. "Will we be going through these lands where we can get baths again?"
This time the northerner's glance at Boromir was apologetic. "Not until we are on the east side of the Misty Mountains are we likely to be able to bathe again, Pippin, and I doubt we shall go through either of the lands of which Boromir spoke. To do so we would have to go far too close to Isengard, and we do not wish to come within grasping distance of the traitor Wizard Saruman."
"Is he so terribly bad then?" Merry asked.
Aragorn sighed, looking upwards at the sky. "To have as much power as he possesses as the Chief of his order while having allied himself with the Dark Lord as he has gives him far too much potential for evil. We would do best to avoid him completely if at all possible."
"But if we are to avoid going south through the Gap of Rohan, how will we cross over the mountains to the valley of the Anduin?" Boromir asked.
"There are other passes through the mountains."
But Boromir felt that the other Man's answer was evasive. He countered, "Passes that are closed due to the snows of winter."
Aragorn shrugged. "Winter draws to a close more swiftly the further south we go. Hopefully not all shall be closed when we reach them."
The budding argument was drawn to a close when Frodo said, "Enough! I wish to hear no more talk of crossing to the eastern side of the mountains for now. Just enjoy the warmth while we can, for we shall have to leave the pool far too soon, I fear, if we are to be safely camped to let clothing dry before sunset."
Aragorn smiled at the Ringbearer. "You are wise, Frodo. I shall go relieve Gandalf so that he, too, can bathe." He grasped a handful of sand and used it to scrub himself clean, ducked under to rinse himself off, and quitted the pool, reaching for the sacking Legolas had left for use as towels. Boromir followed suit, as did Gimli, although the Hobbits tarried for a time in the warm water. As the Gondorian looked back, he saw that Frodo was scrubbing at his legs.
"They did well freeing the pony," he commented to Aragorn as they donned fresh clothing from their bags.
Aragorn nodded distractedly as he pulled a clean silk undergarment over his head. "Hobbits are far stronger for their size than one would believe from merely looking at them. I don't know if you have ever tried hefting Sam's pack, but I would judge that it is far heavier than yours, even. And each time they gather wood they bring back at least as much as I would normally carry, or so I've noticed."
Boromir indicated his agreement. "I must admit I admire their personal strength."
Aragorn smiled at him, finished his dressing, and while still fastening his swordbelt was already climbing to where Gandalf kept his watch. Soon the Wizard was shepherding Legolas and Sam down to bathe with the other Hobbits, and Boromir's last glance down at the pool before he set to with the Dwarf to reload Bill once more was to see Frodo stroking gracefully across the length of the water. It would appear that this Hobbit, at least, was a skilled swimmer!
The next place where they rested was in a shallow cave on the side of a hill. Inside was a pool of water so clear one could easily see to its depths. They washed their most soiled garments in it, and Pippin and Frodo spread them to dry in what daylight remained to them. Boromir took the watch while the rest drowsed and Legolas saw to the evening meal's preparation. By sunset the clothing was mostly dry, and a whispered word from Gandalf had the dampest garments satisfactorily steaming so that they could be packed away ere they set out again with little fear of them becoming mildewed within their packs.
Boromir found himself kneeling near Frodo as they saw their goods once more packed away, and he at last managed to say, "I wished to tell you how much I truly admire the capabilities you Hobbits show forth. You have truly demonstrated the wisdom of Lord Elrond in choosing so many of you to take part in this quest."
Frodo paused, examining the Man's face closely. "So, we are not anywhere as useless as you had once thought?"
Boromir knew he must be flushing terribly. "I will state here and now that it was not truly the use of your people so much as Pippin's constant complaints of hunger that were bothering me. I perhaps ought to have been more precise in my own complaint."
Frodo cast a glance at Pippin where he was already dipping into his night's trail rations, the youngest Hobbit having paused in his own packing, and sighed. "Peregrin Took is still in his tweens, although he ought to have left the worst of his appetite behind him by this age. We Hobbits must eat more than Men, or so it has proved; and younger Hobbits eat more than do those judged full adults. I'd suspected that this was the real complaint you held, and so I merely sought to give you reason to appreciate that even Pippin is not useless."
"Indeed not! And today there is no question that he has worked as hard as has anyone else. If you will forgive me my clumsiness of tongue?"
Frodo smiled. "I will, at least this once, Boromir."
Still, when Boromir found the lace for his favorite shirt breaking on him, he cast a suspicious glance at the oldest of the four Hobbits. Perhaps Frodo felt he was due at least a bit of chastisement, then.
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