13. Chapter Thirteen
“He says he’s a ‘hobbit’.”
“What’s a hobbit?”
The whispered voices did not really disturb the Ring-bearer, but they pulled him from the pleasant place of safety and comfort that his exhausted and battered body had retreated to. If he tried very hard, he could ignore them and return to that warm pain-free shelter. But such an action would not be courteous, and Bilbo had raised him better than that.
Slowly, he pried his eyelashes apart. Splotches of late-morning sun painted the rough whitewashed walls, and the smells of luncheon permeated the small dwelling. The two dark blurs leaning over him frightened him for a moment, but with a few blinks they resolved into two human children, Brion and an older lad who must be his brother Rich.
“Hullo,” offered Frodo with a smile.
“Hello,” the boys chorused in return, returning his smile shyly.
The two parties stared at each other curiously. Frodo saw two boys, one his size with dark, tufted hair and one larger with light-brown hair and ears that stuck out from his head like jug-handles. But their grins were identical, freckled snub-noses wrinkling beneath sparkling brown eyes. For their part, the boys saw a pale creature with the most beautiful blue eyes they had ever seen, set in a gentle, fine-bone face framed by dark curls. But that face looked strained and tired and as the boys watched, pain flashed across it and the hobbit gasped.
“Mama! Mama! Mr. Baggins’ awake! And he’s hurting, Ma!”
Frodo winced and raised his arms to quiet the boys. The sudden movement was a mistake. Fire slashed up from his lower body, drenching him instantly in perspiration. He slid to the side off the pillow and Brion caught him. The older boy shot upright and ran for the door. His “Ma! Da! Come quick!” seemed far away and then it receded in the darkening distance.
Someone was stroking his hair. The large warm hand moved gently over his curls, pushing back those that inevitably fell into his eyes. The hobbit sighed, reluctant to return to full consciousness. It was so much nicer here in this dark, hazy place, with the comforting touch of a friend upon his face.
“Mr. Baggins?” A woman’s voice, and the gentle hand was withdrawn. Marly, his mind supplied. And Brion and Rich and the woman’s husband … Pete. Yes, Pete. “Won’t you wake up, sir? I’ve some chicken soup and bread right out o’ the oven. And you must be thirsty.”
He was, Frodo realized, quite terribly so. His throat ached with it and even his skin felt dry and too small for his body. With an effort, he forced his eyes open and looked into the woman’s anxious features.
His reward was a beaming smile that lit Marly’s plain face and turned it into a thing of beauty. “Well, hello!” she greeted him. “Glad to see you return to the land of the living.” Two smaller faces peered at him from the open door and Frodo tried to pull himself up in the bed. He groaned in spite of himself and immediately the woman pressed him back down. “Don’t you go moving around now, Mr. Baggins. Pete’s going to work on that leg as soon as you get a little food into you.”
The younger boy drifted closer. “Da says you won’t feel like eating, after, so you better do it now.”
“It is all right, Mistress Marly. Truly. The lad was only being honest.” Brion flashed him a quick smile of apology and thanks. The hobbit forced thoughts of the imminent future away with a deliberate force of will. “That smells wonderful. And please, call me Frodo.”
“If you call me Marly.”
Frodo nodded. “Could Brion or Rich carry a message for me? I need to let my friends know that I am safe and in good hands.”
* * * * *
“What time is the town magistrate supposed to arrive at the jail?” asked Aragorn, valiantly trying to scrub the remaining soot from his face.
“The townsfolk I talked to said at mid-day,” Pippin volunteered. Far less filthy than the Ranger and the Elf, he and Merry were sitting by the well on the ground, arms clasped around raised knees, watching as the two Big Folk struggled to rid themselves of the accumulated dirt. Samwise was trying, with little success, to brush out their cloaks. Legolas was doing better than Aragorn - even his garments were shedding ashes and grain-dust more completely than his friend’s.
“Hanging seems a severe retribution for burning down an inn,” commented the Elf, engrossed in trimming his hair, evening out the burned areas. “The owner is unlikely to receive restitution from a corpse.”
“I don’t think the guard commander cares about the innkeeper being repaid,” said Pippin slowly. “A lady told me she is paid to take food to the guards, and one of them told her that it seemed to be a personal matter between the commander and Boromir.”
“What could a guard commander in this nameless place want with Boromir?” Aragorn gave up on trying to wipe off the filth and upended the bucket over his head, water draining down his face and running down to form grey puddles at his feet.
“The lady didn’t know. I didn’t talk to anyone that did. Did you, Merry?” Meriadoc was staring blankly at the tops of his knees. “Merry?”
With a start, the older cousin looked at the younger. “Did you say something, Pip?”
“I said –“ began Pippin, slightly aggrieved by his cousin’s lack of attention.
But Aragorn overrode him. “I know that look, Merry. What are you thinking about?”
Merry raised his bright head slowly, his abstracted expression resolving into one of focused intensity that the other members of the Fellowship knew well. That quicksilver mind was at work, and the Ranger had learned to respect it. “I was thinking about how to get Gandalf and Boromir and Gimli out of jail. How much money do you have?”
Legolas and Aragorn both opened their purses and joined their coins to the hobbits’ ill-gotten gains. Sam whistled. “Never seen so much money in one place before. What are you going ‘ta do with it, Mr. Merry?”
Merry was busily separating the piles of copper and silver and gold into piles, quick hands darting over them with the same deftness they had demonstrated in the shell-game. Merry looked up to grin at the stocky hobbit. “I’m not going to do anything with it, Sam. You and Pip and I had better stay out of sight for a while. Till this – ah – unfortunate misunderstanding is cleared up, anyway.” He paused to pour the small pile of gold coins through his hand, watching as they clinked gently back to earth. “Aragorn and Legolas, however, are going to have to clean up better than that.”
“Why?” asked the Ranger warily.
“Because you are going to get our friends out of jail,” replied Merry reasonably. “And no magistrate is going to accept bail from a couple of ill-favored ruffians such as you two appear to be.”
“Merry,” Legolas responded, “we do not have enough money to make bail for three on such a charge.”
Merry paused in his sorting to wave a hand airily. “Don’t worry about it, Legolas. I’ll take care of that detail.”
“Oh no,” muttered Sam, then wondered why that utterance sounded so familiar to him.
A half-hour later, the two had been cleaned up as much as they could be without soap or a change of clothing. Merry stood before them, hands on hips, and regarded them critically. Legolas returned the hobbit’s examination with cool amusement. Aragorn watched Merry suspiciously and tried to fan his clothing dry. “I think Legolas had better give them the money,” the hobbit said at last.
“They will probably arrest us on the spot and then there will be five to liberate,” muttered Aragorn.
Merry shook his head. “On what grounds? You and Legolas weren’t there when the inn burned down. That man you told us about cleared you of the fire at the warehouse. No one saw us when the silo blew up. You two are innocent.” At the Elf’s elegantly raised eyebrow, Merry reconsidered his words. “I mean, you aren’t wanted for anything.”
“Yet,” growled the Ranger ominously.
“You should leave your weapons with us, though,” Merry continued, ignoring Aragorn’s comment. “You’ll look less like a threat if you aren’t armed.” The two sighed and unburdened themselves, entrusting all but their knives to the hobbits’ care.
* * * * *
The guardsman on desk duty inspected the oddly damp strangers doubtfully. But the training his commander had instilled in him triumphed over his distrust … that, and awe of the one of the Fair Folk that regarded him so disdainfully. “If you sirs will wait here,” the guardsman said, “I will fetch the commander.”
Legolas examined the wooden bench offered him as if he thought it might soil his clothing. Aragorn swallowed a smile and dropped into the plank, stretching his long legs out before him and crossing his boots at the ankle. When the guardsman had gone, Aragorn looked at the Elf from the corner of his eye. “Why the attitude?”
“It has been my experience that underlings are more attentive to their duties when faced by one of superior position,” returned the Elf softly. “Or one of apparently superior position.” At the Ranger’s soft laugh, Legolas continued, “We did not wait to see the commander, did we?”
Both rose to their feet when the guard commander entered the room. Aragorn almost took a step back at the sheer hostility radiating from the man. The commander’s cold grey eyes traveled over them, noting every missed smudge and crisped hair. They would find no friend here. The Ranger opened his mouth to give courteous greeting, but the commander interrupted him.
“The town magistrate will be arriving shortly. When he comes, your friends will be allowed to prove their innocence, if they can.”
“May we see them?” This from Legolas, at his most charming.
The commander eyed the Elf. “I can find no reason to deny you admittance,” he said reluctantly. “You have two minutes. No longer.”
Aragorn and Legolas were escorted by the commander himself into the cell area. Once there, he stood with his back against the door, allowing them some communication but not privacy. Gandalf stood with his back to them, staring out the barred window. Boromir sat on the floor, scrubbing at some stubborn stains on his boots with a cloth. Gimli was asleep on one of the benches, beard pointed to the sky, snoring sonorously.
Boromir looked up as they entered. “Gandalf,” he murmured. The wizard turned instantly, hands tightening on his staff. Gimli woke up with a snort and swung his heavy boots to the floor, silent and watchful. All three came to the bars and clasped wrists with Aragorn and Legolas.
“You are well?” said Aragorn and Gandalf together and laughed. Gandalf stared at them. “Why are you wet?”
“It is a long story and can wait.” The Ranger moved closer to the bars and dropped his voice, “We have the hobbits –“
“Frodo?” asked Gandalf, his expression easing.
“No,” Aragorn replied regretfully. “We found his kidnapper but lost them again. Frodo was free and he ran before we could stop him. I think he is hurt. His abductor came after -”
“You lost him?” the wizard interrupted, bushy brows drawing down and his face flushing dangerously. “Aragorn, I entrusted you with safeguarding the Ring-bearer and you lost him?” He paused for a breath and Aragorn countered, dawning anger on his own face.
“Good job there, Gandalf. Burn down the inn, lose Frodo, refuse to pay the bill, very nearly start a riot, get the Fellowship thrown in jail…” Aragorn paused. “Have I missed anything?”
“Gentlemen,” came the Elf’s soft voice, “may I remind you we have an audience?”
The wizard glared at Legolas but lowered his voice, recognizing the truth of the Ranger’s words. “Very well. I made some mistakes, too.” Gandalf drew in a deep breath. “The first was agreeing to enter this misbegotten town.” He released the breath and closed his eyes. “Our priority must be to find Frodo.”
“Agreed. But to do that, we must get you out of this place.”
Gimli glanced between the two, relieved the potential clash had passed. “How do you propose to spring.us?”
“Aragorn,” Boromir interrupted, “there is something you must know -”
“Time!” The commander barked harshly.
With a sigh, the Ranger released his grip on the bars. He would have spoken again but Gandalf shook his head. The wizard pressed his face against the bars and whispered, “If I must, I will free us. But such an act would advertise ‘Gandalf is here’ to all who have eyes to see. Any hope of passing through unheralded would be lost.”
Aragorn nodded and stepped back. “Wait,” he mouthed at them, and saw three slow nods in reply.
* * * * *
Neither the Elf nor the Ranger had noticed the dark form that kept to the shadows and watched them as they entered the guardhouse. It lurked there, unseen and unheard, black cloak hiding it from even the closest inspection. Abandoning its hiding place, it crept to the outside of the barred window and turned its head sideways, pressing an ear almost against the stone. The Man’s words and the wizard’s came to its straining ears and it clasped one oddly-distended gloved hand over the other ear to better isolate and comprehend the soft words of the conversation within.
“Ring-bearer,” it heard, and “he is hurt” and “lost.” The voices rose briefly then dipped below the range of its hearing. The figure snarled and muttered beneath its breath in a growling, distorted voice. So they’d lost the little one. The other hunter had taken it, and it had escaped that one, too. The dark form had no wish to meet that unnatural creature. It knew little of that one …but enough that it would not move while the sun was in the sky. Briefly it considered seeking out the townsman, Kent, and either paying or terrifying the little weasel into accepting employment from it again. But gold might not buy the stupid little man’s loyalty this time and it dared not make another such mistake.
No. It had the measure of this little town now, and greater understanding of the halflings and their guardians. Almost taking the wrong halfling had been Kent’s fault – perhaps it owed the big warrior a favor for stopping the snatch.
Briefly the cloaked one considered its options and found them limited. The figure pulled its cloak about it and returned to the shadows, hoping that someone would seek to contact the prisoners and so provide it a trail to the one it had been sent to find. As it sank to the ground in a rustle of black cloth, it pondered the little it had been able to overhear, including the word, “Ring-bearer.”
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.