11. Chapter Eleven
The play became more intense, and Sam’s anxiety wrenched up with it. He rarely looked at Merry now but kept his gaze roving over the crowd, his keen eyes worried, watching for the white-bordered black capes of the guardsmen. Pippin, too, was uneasy but his gaze was almost solely on his cousin, watching how the Men crowded close as Merry’s swift hands darted over and around each other, the walnuts shells sliding on the smooth surface of their improvised game-table.
The easy smile had faded from Merry’s face – he was concentrating now, intense and disciplined. The townsfolk won now and then, but by far Merry took in more silvers than he handed out. Pippin knew that the game’s chances did not account for such a run of luck, and his stomach tightened, the meat-roll and sweets he had eaten earlier roiling unpleasantly. “What is he doing?” he whispered to himself. “What is he doing?”
* * * * *
Frodo attempted a half-bow from his reclining position, not the easiest of honors to make. “Frodo Baggins, at your service,” he said, ignoring the pull of abused muscles. He coughed then, and the matron hastened to help him upright so that he could accept a drink of cool water. She steadied it for him, her eyes on the abraded skin of his wrists.
“I’m Marly,” she informed him, “and this scamp here be my son Brion. My older boy Rich and me husband, Peter, helped carry you in, though I doubt you’ll remember them.”
Frodo frowned, having some vague memory of more Big Folk pass through his mind. There had been the dawning light, and pain, and exhaustion so deep it rasped his bones. A wooden porch … and shouts from inside a door. Huge forms, lifting him… Yes. It was difficult to form words around his swollen face. “I fear not. But you have my thanks for the rescue.”
She nodded. “I hope ye don’t mind that I cleaned you up some, sir. You were a dreadful mess. I tried to repair your garments,” Marly said hesitatingly, freckled hands smoothing the quilts over him. “Brushed out your clothes and restrung that ring on its chain for you.” If she noticed the sudden paling of the hobbit’s face, she gave no sign. She reached out and picked up his shirt, pulling the needle through and tying off the thread. “But your shirt’s done for, I’m afraid. I tried to sew it up … but, well … it’s not fit for a dust-rag. Best you wear one of my boy’s, if you don’t mind.”
“Thank you,” said Frodo. Then he turned to the human child. “Do I also owe you thanks for the nightshirt?”
The lad nodded, his face beaming. “We’re almost the same size. Are you my age?”
Frodo laughed. “Young sir, I am fifty years old.” He smiled at their startled expressions. “My folk – hobbits – age differently than Men.”
“Hobbits,” repeated the woman slowly, wonderingly. She smiled at him and Frodo felt warmed by her expression. Her face was round and creased with laugh-lines, the blond hair pulled back into a loose bun, already greying at the roots. She was not young, but her eyes sparkled with compassion and affection, a generous soul whose kindness extended to any in need.
All the more reason he must leave this place, and quickly. The others would be frantic about him; Sam, his cousins, Gandalf... He could not bring danger to these good folk. Frodo tried to shift himself to the edge of the bed and gasped as agony tore through him, emanating from his leg. He stifled a cry, the pain so intense that he pressed his hands to his mouth, fearing he might be sick.
The woman’s expression changed immediately and the hobbit found strong hands pressing his shoulders back into the pillows. “Now don’t you go trying to get up, Master Baggins. You’ve got some nasty hurts, there. That bite on your leg’s gone infected and it looks right bad. My Peter’s had some healer’s training and he’s going to lance it when he gets home.” Seeing his wince, she rushed on. “Don’t you worry, sir. We couldn’t afford for Peter to finish his training, but he knows enough to treat infections and simple injuries. All our neighbors come to him, them that can’t pay for a real healer. He’ll do right by you.”
“Thank you,” Frodo whispered. The severity of the pain has startled him, draining him of the pleasant haze of his awakening. The fever was re-asserting itself and his head was beginning to throb.
Seeing those brilliant eyes unfocus, Marly raised a hand to the hot forehead in worry. “Brion,” she murmured, “you run and wet a cloth for Mr. Baggins’ forehead. Cool him off some. Hop to it, lad.” The boy darted away. “Master Baggins…” she said, hating to rouse him, but Brion would be back in moments. The so-blue eyes opened again and struggled to focus on her. “Sir – I have to know. Is someone huntin’ you? Should I send for my Peter?”
Frodo fought to concentrate. So much depended on his answer. But he would not deceive her for his own safety. “I fear it is so, Mistress Marly. An evil creature took me from my friends and held me, doing the damage you see. I escaped and fled during … a commotion. I did not see any pursuit, but it may be so.” He stopped and swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. “You take me in at great risk.”
The hobbit was startled to feel a warm hand stroke his hair gently. “Thought it was something like that,” she muttered. “Don’t you fear now – my lad and I aren’t helpless. I’ll send Brion for Peter, and for me older boy. We can talk when you’re feeling better. You just sleep now. Just sleep.”
Unable to even reply, the Ring-bearer sank back into darkness.
* * * * *
There was no hope now of tracking either Frodo or the creature, Aragorn thought dismally. The time they had been delayed by the mob had allowed others to muck over the ground, totally obliterating any bare hobbit-prints or sign of the unnatural thing that hunted him. They had searched as best they could in the night, then waited impatiently for the sun to rise so that they could conduct a more thorough examination. The sun had not cleared the horizon before the two were desperately searching the muddied ground, looking for any indication of the direction in which the Ring-bearer and the creature had fled. Legolas straightened from shifting aside some debris in hopes of uncovering untrammeled ground, but it was hopeless. The usually eloquent earth could tell them nothing.
The Ranger slammed his fist into his hand, swallowing an oath. Legolas glanced at him in surprise, unused to seeing the normally self-contained Ranger so frustrated. “Peace, my friend,” counseled the Elf. “We will find him. This town is too small to hide such odd folk as hobbits forever.”
“We don’t have forever,” growled Aragorn, anger and fear burning in his blue-grey eyes. “We don’t even have a day.”
Legolas regarded the singed, dirty Ranger speculatively. “Aragorn, when last did you sleep?”
Aragorn opened his mouth to snap at the Elf, then closed it with an effort. Legolas was right. He had had no rest since the morning of the day they arrived in this little town. Wearing himself into exhaustion would gain them nothing, would not help Frodo. “I thought so,” commented Legolas. “Let us find a quiet place. You will be the better for a few hours’ sleep. I will keep watch.”
“Insufferable Elf,” muttered Aragorn under his breath.
“Arrogant Man,” returned Legolas easily. “We passed a small grain silo some way back. It had no windows and the loading door was on high off the ground. None would think to look for us there. And it would be both cool and quiet.”
Now that his attention had been drawn to it, Aragorn was aware that he was achingly tired. “All right,” he agreed, somewhat less than graciously. “You’ll wake me before midday?”
* * * * *
Merry was becoming tired; Pippin could see it. The quick movement and deftness required by the shell-game was taking its toll. A fine trembling had started in Merry’s shoulders and was traveling down his arms. Should he offer to take his place and let his cousin rest? Pippin could see that the purse was heavy with silver coins now, and several gold. Could they not stop, and turn their energies to locating Frodo and helping Gandalf and Boromir and Gimli?
Even as closely as he was watching, Pippin missed what started the argument. One of the Men reached out and caught Merry’s arm, snarling something that Pippin could not hear. Merry looked up, a frightened expression on his face. The Man tightened his grip, pulling the hobbit half over the barrel, the walnut shells crushed beneath him. The table tipped, Merry’s weight tilting it to the side. He twisted, trying to jerk himself free, and the Man’s face went red, fury rising in his eyes. Then Sam was off the barrel and he and Pippin were racing to Merry’s aid.
“He’s cheatin’! That pea should have been under this shell!” The man, a squat, overstuffed fellow, pushed the captive hobbit back and peeled up one of the shells, revealing its emptiness. Keeping one meaty hand wrapped ‘round Merry’s arm, the Man hauled him cruelly back and reached out to turn over the other two shells. Both were empty. Pippin made a choking little bleat, his heart in his throat. Sam balled his hands into fists and measured the distance to the man’s soft belly.
The man was turning back to Merry and others were crowding close, their faces sweating and angry. The man forced uncurled Merry’s hands and stared in astonishment when first one palm then the other was shown to be empty. Merry stared at him, white-faced. The man sucked in a great breath of air, his own face paling. “I – I’m sorry, little master. I thought -”
Merry wrenched his arm free. “You insult me, sir. This game is over. Come on, hobbits, we’re leaving.” Snatching up the small sack that served as their purse, the young hobbit glared at the man. The man stepped back, shame-faced and confused.
Pippin fell into line behind Merry, Sam bringing up the rear, his grey eyes still smoldering. “Where the pea, then?” someone asked. A dead silence settled over the little group, and the men that had stepped away looked at each other then closed again.
“It must have fallen when you upset the game-table,” Merry supplied, pulling Pippin around and pushing the tweenager before him. “We’ll never find it now.” Pippin stumbled, too confused to order his feet. Sam closed the gap, keeping himself between the younger hobbits and the Men.
The beefy man glared at the hobbits, uncertainty and anger warring on his face. “I don’t think so. I think this little cheat still has it.”
“Sir, I assure you –“
With a speed that belied his bulky build, the man lashed out, catching Merry’s hands for a second time. As Pippin and Sam watched, horrified, the fingers of Merry’s right hand were spread. Then those of his left. When the man forced apart the third and fourth fingers, the pea dropped to the ground. It bounced once in silent accusation, then rolled out of sight between the townsfolk’s boots.
“Merry,” whispered Pippin, “you didn’t.”
Merry did not reply. He looked ill, swaying slightly on his feet. Then his eyes met those of his fellow-hobbits and Pippin read the message there, long practice allowing him to understand that silent communication. That same look was in Merry’s eyes through countless unauthorized forays into Farmer Maggot’s fields, though countless midnight raids of the pantries of Brandy Hall and the Great Smials. Pippin squeezed Sam’s arm.
Sam knew that look, too. He knew how it usually meant trouble for someone. If not Master Pippin, then for him and his master. His rear had smarted for days after that look in Mr. Merry’s eyes had talked him into showing them where his Gaffer kept his home brew. The Gaffer hadn’t dared to discipline Mr. Merry or young Master Pippin, of course, but he had complained to their fathers. Sam hoped the two had got theirs but had never worked up nerve to ask them. And now that look of Mr. Merry’s -
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.