15. Chapter Fifteen
The Ranger spat it out into his palm and held it up. Copper winked dully underneath a thin gold wash. Aragorn dropped it and put his hand over his eyes, murmuring too softly for the others to hear, “Ah, Merry, what have you done now?”
Legolas alone heard the whispered words. The Elf’s eyes widened in alarm. He started to speak but was interrupted by a howl from the innkeeper. “No, no!” the man cried, sounding as if he had lost his dearest friend in the world. The man flung his arms around the sack and its scattered contents, his thick chest heaving with choking sobs. “Noooooooo!”
Aragorn lowered his hand to find a sword-point an inch from his throat. The commander’s steel-colored eyes gleamed as his other hand toyed with the coin the Ranger had let fall. Over the gasping cries of the innkeeper, the man commented, “Most ingenious. Copper coins washed in … goldenrod flowers and yellow ochre, if I am not mistaken. You gentlemen know something of herb-lore.” He cautiously tasted the other side of the coin. “Coated with a binding agent of …” here a careful lick, “water and grain dust. A most resourceful glue.” He scraped a fingernail over the coin, then again harder. “And effective. They would certainly pass casual inspection, to eyes that were blinded by greed.” He paused for a moment to toss a glance of contempt at the innkeep and the town magistrate.
The magistrate’s face had gone dead white upon the commander’s revelation. Now it was slowly regaining its color, flushing a beet-red hue that did not go well with the curly white fringe around his balding head. Growling inarticulately, he too inspected the coins. “What’s this?” he demanded, finding his voice at last. Fleshly fingers fastened onto one of the coins and pulled, holding up something almost invisible into a shaft of the mid-day sun that slanted through one of the garrison’s windows. The sunbeam glinted off a single bright filament.
Deftly Legolas plucked it from his fingers and examined it, those clear eyes focused and intent. “It is a thread,” confirmed the Elf. “I suspect it was soaked for the dye, to further enhance the golden tint of the coating.” He raised his eyes to meet those of the Ranger, amused despite the danger they were now in. “I have little doubt it is from a certain yellow waistcoat.”
Aragorn nodded resignedly. He sought the commander’s unyielding eyes. “You must believe me when I say that we had no knowledge of this. My friend and I mixed our own money in with … other coins and another took the gold and placed it in this sack. And did more, evidently.” He grimaced, a rare pinking of tanned cheeks that spoke volumes of his chagrin and embarrassment.
A grain of doubt showed in the guard commander’s eyes. He had captained enough soldiers over many, many years to know when a man lied, and his instincts told him now that this tall, dangerous-looking man was telling him the truth. Against his will, he found himself respecting this vagabond warrior. The sword-point wavered slightly, then firmed and rose again. “Be that as it may,” the commander remarked in his cool disinterested voice, “I am sure you will understand when I decline to release the prisoners to you.”
“I should say not!” snarled the magistrate. His comrade was still clutching the sack to himself, an expression of agony on his face. “Wot did you think you were getting away with, eh? Trying to cheat us, eh? You’ll join your friends in that cell, now, you will. You can all rot together -”
“A moment, please.” The magistrate started; Legolas had stood so still and silent that the little man had forgotten him. “A moment,” the Elf repeated, those sunlit eyes clouded. “There is a great deal of money here. A great deal in genuine gold. If you add to it the gold in the two purses offered you last night, surely that is enough for bail?”
The magistrate’s mouth dropped open. The innkeeper made a faint gurgling sound, one meaty hand clenched around the sack, holding it to his breast like a lover. “You would have all this money now,” Legolas continued in a soft, persuasive voice. “And more to come, to pay for the inn. Double the worth of the inn and all its furnishings and stock, as originally promised.”
With an effort, the little man closed his mouth. “And how do we know you’ll deliver?”
Legolas drew himself up and his eyes flashed. “I am Legolas Greenleaf, Prince of the Greenwood,” he declaimed in his clear, ringing voice. Aragorn stared at his old friend in amazement; rarely had he seen the Elf use the power and prestige of his royal birth. “Allow me to send to my sire. The funds will be delivered to you with all the speed that elvish-horses can race the wind.”
The magistrate and the innkeeper looked at each other and licked their lips in an identical, unconscious gesture. “So much,” encouraged Aragorn softly. “So much money. Think of all the ways it would benefit this town. And so much more to come… Would it truly be such a hardship to wait but a little while? Surely what is here, and the gold in the other two purses, can buy the temporary freedom of our three friends?”
“Two.” They all turned to the guard commander. The officer had lowered his sword when Aragorn made no move to escape or defend himself. Now the man’s grey eyes burned, kindled from within by some private fire. Those eyes flicked to the magistrate. “Keeping one here will ensure that the others do not … decide to abscond without making the reparations they promised.”
Slowly the round little man nodded, swayed by the pleading looks of the innkeeper and his own avarice. “Yes … good thinking.” He turned to face the Ranger. “All right. We will keep one of your friends here -”
“The man,” interrupted the commander softly.
The magistrate frowned at him. “What?”
The guard commander raised his voice slightly. “We will keep the soldier here as surety for the good behavior of the others. The old man and the dwarf may go free.”
Aragorn started to protest and his hand almost strayed to his sword hilt, then he remembered that he had left it with the hobbits. Legolas had seen the almost imperceptible movement and shook his head slightly. It seemed Merry had been right that the townsfolk would deal with them more easily did they appear less of a threat. Aragorn’s gaze returned to the Elf. Legolas’ brow was furrowed and his gaze opaque. Knowing that his friend sometimes caught undercurrents and tensions more clearly than himself, the Ranger kept silent.
The guard commander looked at them as if he expected objections. When he received none, some of the edginess left his face. “Their weapons and personal belongings will be returned to you. The money,” and here he again flashed that cool glance of contempt at his superior and the innkeeper, “we will keep as insurance of your good manners.”
When Aragorn and Legolas were escorted into the holding area, Gandalf and Boromir ands Gimli were pressed to the bars, pressed as close as the cell would allow them to hear the conversation in the adjoining room. Another time the Ranger would have smiled to see them so, but there was little leeway for levity now. Swiftly the bail arrangement was explained to the three. The great iron key was turned in the lock and the barred door opened.
With a glance at the others, Gimli went first, his slow exit providing Gandalf a moment to talk with Boromir. “Do not fear,” the wizard said softly, “we will be watching, always.”
Boromir nodded, but his face was strained. “The commander wants my death, Gandalf.”
“He has been pushed beyond all rationality by his hate and desire for revenge,” replied the wizard softly. “Whatever grievance he holds against the Steward may not come before our mission. I will not permit you to come to harm.”
Then the great door was closed upon Boromir and he stood alone and desolate as the others left.
* * * * *
At Aragorn’s signal, three small shapes emerged cautiously from behind the barrels of the root cellar and guided Gandalf and Gimli down into the hobbits’ hiding place, with the Ranger and the Elf following. Momentarily blind from the transition from bright sunlight to gloomy murk, the four followed the tugs on their hands and clothing and felt their way down the steps into the cool earthen storage area. Their packs and other burdens were taken from them and stacked against the wall, and Aragorn sighed in relief when the familiar hilt of his sword was pressed into his hands.
“You lot are going to have to bend over some,” Sam informed them as Gandalf straightened and caught his forehead on a wooden beam. So warned, Aragorn and Legolas crouched down and sought seats on the dusty plank floor. Gimli did not have to hunch over; he sat down and looked about the root cellar with approval, his hands caressing the great battle-axe between his drawn-up knees with tenderness.
“Were you followed?” asked Merry, guiding Gandalf to sit down on some flour sacks.
“Where’s Boromir?” questioned Pippin anxiously, looking up at the closed double doors in confusion and worry.
The four had had time to speak with each other on the short walk to the agreed-upon meeting place of the root cellar. “Meriadoc,” said Gandalf quietly, his hands clenched tightly around his staff, “I would like to speak with you.”
* * * * *
“I think you’d better give him something to bite on, luv,” murmured Peter softly as his great, gentle hands turned the hobbit’s leg, his face pressed up inches from the inflamed wound in order to see it the better.
Frodo’s eyes, huge with apprehension, darted from his face to Marly’s. Wordlessly, the woman tore one of the linen strips her son had brought in with the surgery utensils and folded it many times, making a thick pad. Frodo stared at it a long moment before opening his mouth to accept it. When it was securely in place, he laid his head back on the pillow and turned his face to the wall, closing his eyes.
But he could not block out the contributions of his other senses. “Move around, boy, an’ hold his other leg,” he heard and felt a moment later Rich’s tentative hands grasp his unwounded leg and press it into the mattress. A cool hand stroked his forehead briefly before resuming its hold on his shoulder, keeping him still. The sharp scent of an antiseptic came to his nostrils, then something cool was brushed over the wound, causing him to shudder. It burned with coldness and he clamped his teeth on the gag, sweat starting from his face even though Peter had not yet begun to cut.
At the first touch of the knife he jerked violently, unable to prevent it. His eyes flew open to behold Marly’s white face and the tears in her eyes that were sliding down her full cheeks. Seeing his gaze upon her, she inhaled through her teeth, catching her husband’s attention. “Talk to him, luv. It may help.”
“Do you want to hear what I’m doing, Frodo?” Peter asked, his hands still hidden from the hobbit’s view. Unable to reply, Frodo nodded. “The infection where that dirty thing bit you has turned septic,” the man continued in his gentle, even voice. “There’s an ugly red streak starting from the bite and leading up towards your heart. It’s only a few inches long now.” The man fell silent and again the hobbit felt something burning cold drill into his leg. “I’m going to cut along it and drain it and disinfect it.”
The man’s next words were lost in a wave of red blackness that washed over him. When his mind would have sank gratefully into darkness, his body fought, keeping him aware. He cried out in spite of himself and again that cool hand brushed across his face, this time wielding a cloth soaked in cold water. “Easy, easy,” a caring voice whispered above him, and he struggled to call Marly’s name to mind.
The adamant steel that was the knife was withdrawn and he heard Peter exhale. At his feet, Rich echoed the sound, a breathy gulp in his voice. Again the cold burning, which he now understood was the liquid antiseptic being poured into and over the wound. Something vile frothed from the injury and ran down the side of his leg, to be wiped away by the man. A nauseating smell rose in the air, putrid and suffocating. The boy made a soft sound of revulsion and sickness, but the trembling hands on the hobbit’s leg did not falter.
Frodo was perspiring greatly now, shaking with chills and tremors. His heart was pounding so hard that the front of Brion’s borrowed nightshirt fluttered. Were he not held down so forcefully, he would have shaken off the restraining arms and fought his way to freedom, even knowing that the Big Folk were trying to help and that he must submit to this.
“One more little cut,” came the man’s voice, “and it will be over. It’s draining nicely, Frodo. Good thing this didn’t wait a couple o’ days … once the poison involved invades into the bloodstream, the body’s defenses secrete toxins…” The man’s voice droned on, comforting in its monotony, mouthing words the hobbit did not understand and could not seem to attend to. Again the pain, immediate and intense. The world came abruptly back into sharp focus. Marly was holding him down by leaning on him, her head aside his. Rich was pressing down his other leg with both hands, freckles standing out in sharp relief to his wan face. Peter’s head was tilted down, his face intense, professional yet compassionate of the small person writhing under his hands. This time the knife, dripping and red to the hilt, was set back on the bandages and the rest of the burning cold liquid poured over his leg until the container was empty.
Frodo choked and Marly tugged gently on the gag. He stared at her blankly for a moment before opening his mouth, feeling the dry cloth pulled from his tongue and peel back off his teeth. “It’s done,” she crooned, hands stroking his sweat-soaked curls, “it’s all over now. Pete’s just going ‘ta put in a few stitches…”
It seemed impossible that the tiny needle should hurt as much as it did. Or that he could feel the thread tug through his flesh. When the needle looped around through the lips on the other side of the wound to draw the stitch together and seal it, the hobbit’s strength gave way at last and he fainted.