10. Chapter Ten
That shattering crash had brought two more of the guardsmen to their commander’s side, silent and well-trained. With a wave of his hand, he sent them back out of the cell, his cold grey eyes on the waiting wizard, warrior and dwarf. “You do not remember me,” the tall man stated, his eyes moving to Boromir. “You were but a youth when I was sent from the Guard of the White Tower in disgrace.”
Boromir looked carefully at the man who stood on the opposite side of the barred wall. “No,” he confessed. “But you know me?” he added as the silence lengthened between them.
“Oh, yes,” replied the commander. “You much resemble your father. It is not likely that I would forget his features, when he had me stripped of my rank and whipped through the streets of Minas Tirith.”
Boromir stared at the man, wordless. “And now the Steward’s son and heir comes into my grasp,” murmured the man, seemingly more to himself than to the three prisoners. “Accused of burning down an inn, and causing much disruption and damage to the little town I have claimed as my own. Far … very far … from his lord father’s sheltering arms.”
“What was your crime?” asked Gandalf, his rough voice low and unthreatening.
The commander glanced at him, seeing no doubt only a disreputable old man, leaning on his worn walking stick. “I was broken of rank and disgraced for the unforgivable crime of requesting that my last son not die in the service of Gondor.” The cold face hardened, rage burning there that had gone unquenched for years. “Arleod was fifteen. He was the last of my five sons. The others had already died on the border. I begged Lord Denethor to spare Arleod, saying I had given four sons and my entire life in the protection of Gondor. But it was not enough. Arleod was sent to the Eastern border … and died in his first action there.”
The man was silent for several moments, his face remote. “His mother could not bear losing the last of her children. She hanged herself.”
“And you?” This from Boromir, his arms folded across his chest, consciously or unconsciously hiding the White Tree on his gauntlets.
The commander withdrew his gaze from whatever hell he had been revisiting. His burning gaze centered on Boromir to the exclusion of the other two. “I returned to the Tower and resigned my commission, telling the Steward that no longer could I serve him. That I wished only to leave Gondor and find what peace I could in some nameless place.” He laughed abruptly, a short bark without humor. “As you see, I received my wish. But that was only after I was shamed before my command and driven from the City I had served all of my life.”
“And now?” Again it was Gandalf who spoke so softly.
With an effort, the man tore his gaze from Boromir’s pale face and focused on the wizard. “The man whose inn you burned down will be here at midday, as will the town magistrate. You will both have the opportunity to present your cases. After you are found guilty, you will be given the chance to make restitution, in full, to the Innkeep.” Gandalf moved to protest but the commander cut him off. “I know you do not have sufficient funds with you. I very much doubt the Innkeep will accept a letter of credit from you. It will then be my pleasure to have you hanged as common criminals.”
“You cannot do that!” protested Boromir. “We meant no harm! Let me send to my father – he will provide the gold. Double the worth of the inn, if the man wishes it.”
“The only thing I will send to your father,” whispered the commander, his face white except for his smoldering grey eyes, “is your body and that of your friends in coffins.” With that, he turned on his heel and was gone.
Gimli cleared his throat and spoke for the first time since picking himself up from the floor. “We must leave this place,” the dwarf rumbled.
* * * * *
Frodo scrunched shut his eyes, trying to ignore the morning sun shining into them. It was an old battle between him and Sam – Sam would throw open the shutters of his bedroom and Frodo, out of sheer stubbornness, would avoid waking up for as long as he could. Then the smells of frying bacon and sausages would drift through Bag End, and he would bow to the inevitable and follow his growling stomach into breakfast. But why did his wrists burn so?
With a groan, fuzzy memory returned to the hobbit. The rope-burns that he had gained in his frantic struggles had bitten deep and were now crusting. It felt as if bracelets of fire adorned his wrists, and even the slightly movement of his fingers brought unbearable agony. He stopped trying to move and lay still, returning awareness bringing with it knowledge of the need for silence and subterfuge.
He cracked his eyes open a little, the shimmering in them giving way to the blurry outlines of a small room with a fire burning brightly in a hearth. He was in a bed, he realized, clean and warm, wrapped in a nightshirt underneath layers of quilts. So he had finally gotten a bath, he thought, and the chuckle that rose in his throat became a cough and betrayed him.
“Mama! Mama, he’s awake!” A young Man-child stared at him from a stool beside the bed, brown eyes lustrous with excitement. The boy rose and skittered from the room in search of his parent. Frodo stared after him blankly, then full memory crashed down upon him. His hand flew to his throat. Yes, it was still there, strung around his neck. They hadn’t taken it. The Ring lay cold and gleaming upon his breast, a spot of ice against him underneath the warmth of the quilts.
He craned his neck, looking about the small room. His clothes lay folded across the back of a chair. It looked like someone had made an attempt at brushing them and a needle still stuck out from the ruined shirt, a row of neat stitches running along one rip. The chair stood before a small desk, one leg propped up on a brick. A small wardrobe completed the furnishings. From the wooden toys and other personal possessions of the room, the hobbit guessed that it belonged to the lad he had just seen leave. Frodo settled back into the bed and reluctantly took stock of himself.
His face and jaw were very swollen. He could almost feel the imprint of the creature’s claws against his skin. Now that he was fully aware, the rope-burns on his wrists hurt worse than ever. The rat-bite on his leg hurt also, burning and itching, and he became aware of a low-grade fever that made him feel both hot and cold in turns, swinging without warning from one extreme to the other. He was very tired and his whole body ached with a throb that seemed to go through him with each heartbeat. He raised a hand and felt at the bump on his head where the creature had struck him. It, at least, no longer hurt. It seemed to be the only part of him that didn’t.
Further inventory was interrupted by the entrance of a large human woman, the boy clinging to her side. With a flutter of skirts, the stout woman arranged herself on the stool and laid a no-nonsense hand on his forehead. Eyes the same rich brown as the boy’s regarded him. She smiled at him and Frodo returned the smile, feeling his heart surge at the generous affection in her demeanor. Withdrawing her hand, she reached out and snagged the boy, drawing him down to lean against her knees. “Well, Master Halfling,” she greeted him, “what brings ye all hurt and bleeding to our doorstep?”
* * * * *
“ …Select your shell, the one you choose;
If right, you win, if not, you lose.
The game itself is lots of fun,
Your chances though, are two to one;
And I tell you that your chance is slim
To win a prize from Peregrin!”
Pippin’s voice was beginning to crack and his hands beginning to cramp on the walnut shells. The hobbits’ small pile of copper coins had grown steadily and now boasted a silver here and there, and one lonely gold. Merry understood well how even the most disappointed loser could not take umbrage with that sweet face smiling up at him; Pip charmed everyone who crossed his path. The youngest hobbit had submitted to having his curls ruffled and his cheek pinched by a steady parade of housewives and merchants, all too captivated by the foreign halfling-child to resent losing a few coins. And Pippin had exerted himself, green-gold eyes shining, a high flush on his sharp face as he made shameless calf-eyes up at the townsfolk, thoroughly enjoying himself.
From his look-out position atop a barrel, Sam shook his head. “How does he do it?” he asked Merry, who was leaning against the barrel and watching his younger cousin bespell the Big Folk clustered around their little improvised game-table.
Merry grinned. “Pip loves being the center of attention, Sam. He genuinely likes people; Big Folk, Elves, hobbits … I’ve never seen someone he couldn’t charm if he set his mind to it. He’ll be a Thain to be reckoned with, someday.”
“Aye,” growled Sam. “I’ve no doubt o’ it. Still, it’s a good thing these folks are so taken with the game that they don’t give it much thought.”
“What do you mean, Sam?” Merry asked, then winced as he considered his words.
“Well,” the sturdy hobbit remarked, folding his arms as his quick grey eyes continued to scan the crowd for any sign of a guardsman, “Master Pip’s song says a body’s chances are ‘two to one.’ But that just ain’t right. The Big Folk think they either win or they don’t, and that’s true, but it ain’t right.” Merry drew a breath but Sam continued on, oblivious. “If you think about it, the Big Folk have one chance in three o’ winning, cause the pea’s under one of three shells. But they got two chances o’ three of losing. Now Master Pip, he’s got two chances o’ three of winning, and only one chance out of three of losing. So these folks’ chances aren’t ‘two to one’ like they’re being told.”
“Lower your voice, would you, Sam?” whispered Merry, glancing around nervously.
“It just don’t seem right, Mr. Merry,” continued Sam stubbornly. “I think – “
“Oh, poor Pip!” remarked Merry loudly. “I think I really ought to spell the lad a bit. I’m the one who taught him the game after all; I should do a bit of the work. Excuse me, Sam –“
Before Samwise could protest (or finish what he had been about to say), Merry had pushed himself away from the barrel and instigated himself at Pippin’s side. Pippin surrendered the barrel-top to him gratefully, rubbing his hands and flexing his fingers. Merry looked up into the eager, intrigued faces around him and flashed his own sparkling smile. “I’m a little out of practice,” he confessed demurely, deliberately dropping the pea and having to snatch at it to retrieve it before sliding it under a walnut shell, “so I hope you’ll go easy on me, good folk. Now, who’ll place a bet?”
Pippin gravitated towards Sam, stopping to chat with folk in the crowd and visit with all who greeted him. When he finally arrived at Sam’s barrel, his hands and pockets were stuffed with meat-rolls and baked goods and sweets that the good townsfolk had pressed upon him. Pippin stuffed some of the overflowing bounty into Sam’s hands and plopped himself down on a nearby crate to watch Merry work. Around a mouthful of meat-roll, the tweenager sought the older hobbit’s eyes. “Sam, some of the Big Folk told me that Gandalf and the others are going to stand trial for burning down the inn at midday. And that the commander of the guard wants to hang them.”
“Hang them?” Sam dropped his roll, his face going chalky.
Pippin got up and drifted closer and Sam crouched down so that none would overhear them, his round face suddenly shining with perspiration. Pippin wished he had thought to soften his news. “We’ve got to get them out of there. We’ve got enough money to live on for a while. Enough money to post a reward to anyone to might have seen who took Frodo, or tell us where Aragorn and Legolas have got to.”
Sam nodded. “I think you’d best tell Mr. Merry. We’ve been lucky so far – no guardsmen have come ‘ta put an end to this. But all it would take would be one sore loser to turn us in.”
Pippin nodded in turn and without another word drifted back to Merry. Merry’s patter and gleaming smile faltered as Pippin whispered in his ear and his bright blue eyes shut for a moment. More soft words were exchanged between the two. Sam frowned; Merry was shaking his head and turning back to the game, the eager young Man before him waiting impatiently.
Pippin was making his way back to Sam, his face strained and unhappy. “He says we need more money,” whispered Pippin, when he came within gentle hearing distance of Sam. “He said he was going to raise the stakes.”
“What does he mean by that?” asked Sam.
Pippin shook his head. “I don’t know. He said to watch and be ready to leave in a hurry.”
“Oh no,” murmured Sam.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.