16. Chapter Sixteen
Brion felt his shoulder shaken, but the warm wool coverlet that he seemed to be wrapped in was too comfortable to release. His mother and brother both routinely resorted to shoulder shaking and the boy had developed an immunity to it. He shrugged off the leather glove and tried to burrow deeper into the bed.
Only it wasn’t a bed. Unyielding wood met his squirming, and the scent of a wool rug gone to mustiness. For some unfathomable reason, he was lying on a mildew-ridden carpet on the floor. If he got his clothes dirty, his mother would –
A bucket of stale water was thrown over him, and the boy found himself on his feet, gasping, rivulets of water running down from his dark hair. He stared at the black-cloaked form that stood before him, unable to force sense upon his awakening. Seeing the expression on his face, the dark figure abruptly laughed, then coughed.
The figure coughed again. “It is hard on the throat to rasp so,” the figure muttered. It cleared it throat extensively, then addressed the boy again. Brion lost the first few words, so shocked was he by the higher register in which the figure spoke. Seeing his pole axed stare, the figure stopped and with a sigh, threw back the black hood.
Glossy raven hair tumbled down from its pinnings, framing an olive-skinned face of delicate structure. Brown eyes so dark they looked almost black returned his stare. She was beautiful, the boy thought, then his mind seized and stumbled on the pronoun.
Amusement sparked in the lovely eyes, outlined by thick black lashes like butterfly wings. Returning his regard, she slipped the black cloak from her shoulders then tugged off the gloves, revealing slender hands with greatly elongated fingernails, filed to a blunt tip and painted. Brion had never seen such long nails before, or painted ones. He stared, open-mouthed.
“In my country,” the woman said, “in the South, only the nobility may grow their nails to such length. It is a sign that we do not work the soil like the peons my noble father sold me to purchase.” She waved the hand before her eyes, admiring the contrast of olive skin against the bleeding red paint. “Of course, it makes it difficult to carry out my chosen profession of assassin and thief.
“And now kidnapper, evidently,” she murmured grimly. “Shut your mouth, halfling, before a fly flies in.”
This Brion did, while inching away from her. She wore breeches like a man, black leather, soiled and stained with long wearing and a worn linen tunic of quality make. A long sword hung at her side, slender and sharp as she, and knives were tucked into sheaths tied at her thigh and forearms. A low belt of shaped metal stars hung at her waist and the boy saw light glint off one, as if the edges were razored. The woman watched him inventory her, smiling, and reached up to gather up the raven locks and wind them in a tight braid around the crown of her head, fastening them with a hair-clasp made of a tiny throwing dagger.
“You do look very young,” she remarked. “But not as different from human folk as I was led to believe.” She leaned forward to examine him more closely and Brion fetched up with a wall against his back, unable to retreat further. “Your feet look normal enough, if extremely muddy. Do you truly grow hair upon them?”
She thinks I’m Frodo! Brion realized with a shock that went clear through him. Chagrined, he realized he had been backing away from the door of the small room. She was between him and it.
The woman followed his gaze without turning around. “It’s locked,” she informed him. “And the buildings on both sides of this little place stand empty. Screaming would avail you little.” Her gaze swept him up and down dismissively. “Do not think you could overpower me, halfling. I am strong and well-trained and you look just like a little boy.”
That stung. “I’m not a little boy,” Brion retorted. “I’m ten!”
The woman paused in adjusting her belt of stars and those dark, dark eyes raised to him. The boy was reminded of his father’s stories of the tiger that waited in the grasslands. Her eyes looked like that. “What?” she said after a moment.
“I’m ten,” Brion repeated stubbornly. He was aware that answering her so probably wasn’t the wisest move he could make, but she had insulted him. “I’m not a little boy.”
The woman went perfectly still, like the tiger just before it pounced. Then her hand tightened on the hilt of one of the long knives. “What is your name?”
* * * * *
“Frodo? Can you wake up a little, please?”
A woman’s voice, soft and sweet. Someone was stroking his hair, gentle caressing motions that soothed and comforted. He did not want to wake up. There would be pain when he did; he was almost sure of it.
“He’s fighting it, luv.”
“Can’t say I blame him, Marly. I wouldn’t want to wake up either, if someone’d been cutting on my leg.” Another set of warm hands, these ones larger and rougher-skinned, turned the limb gently, unwrapping the bandages that he could dimly feel as pressure and restraint. “But he’s got ‘ta get some liquid into him, and this leg needs to be washed again. It’s still draining something awful.”
“I’ve echinacea tea ready, an’ there’s some left for a poultice. That ends it though … all that’s left in the herb garden is goldenseal.”
“What I wouldn’t give for some powdered myrrh. Or -”
“Or half a dozen other medicines, we can’t afford, luv. We’ll do the best we can with what we have, like we’ve always done.”
“Frodo? Come on now, you must wake up.”
The voices were becoming impossible to ignore. He tried valiantly, though. He was quite certain now that he didn’t want to wake up.
* * * * *
“Come here, Meriadoc,” said Gandalf quietly.
“I’m comfortable right here, Gandalf,” responded Merry, safely out of arm’s reach and intending to stay that way. Pippin was clustered close to his cousin’s side, while Sam stared at them in bewilderment, aware that something was wrong but not what. He’d been too busy trying to help Aragorn and Legolas clean their filthy clothing to pay much attention when Merry ordered Pippin to gather dandelions and flowers and had started washing his yellow waistcoat in the bucket from the well. It had certainly needed it, to Sam’s way of thinking.
“Would you like something to eat?” Merry added hurriedly. “There’s bags of apples and nuts, and we’ve opened jars of peaches –“
“Is Boromir coming soon?” interrupted Pippin. The tweenager left Merry and scrambled up to the closed doors, trying to angle his head to see out without opening them. “Did he have to stop for something?”
“I’m not sorry!” flashed Merry suddenly. Pippin stopped craning his neck and stared at his cousin. Sam looked frightened and worried. “It worked, didn’t it? You’re here!” Aragorn and Legolas exchanged a glance. Gimli sat with his head down, resolutely keeping himself out of the confrontation. “There was still more in that sack than that dirty old inn was worth!”
“I am not arguing that, Meriadoc. You are probably right. And your little ruse would most likely have succeeded completely, were it not for the suspicions of the guard commander.” Pippin left off trying to see out and resumed his place at Merry’s side, winding his small hands in Merry’s still-damp waistcoat, his sharp face glancing worriedly from the wizard to his cousin. Merry put an arm out and Pippin wiggled in close, giving comfort as well as receiving it.
“Gandalf, where’s Boromir?” asked Pippin, when no one said anything for long moments.
Gandalf’s gaze shifted to him and the tweenager flinched back. “He is being kept at the jail as surety for our ‘good behavior’ as the guard commander put it.”
Merry said nothing, but his bright head dipped. Pippin looked into the lowered face then stared at Gandalf. “I don’t understand.”
“Merry dyed copper coins so that they looked like gold, Pippin,” Aragorn told him gently. Pippin stiffened. “It was a well-thought out scheme that might have worked, had not the guard commander delved to the bottom of the sack and fastened upon one of the counterfeits.” The Ranger noticed that Pippin’s arm tightened upon Merry. “The magistrate was about to release them, until your cousin’s little game was discovered. Then he was going to jail us all, had not greed overruled him.”
“Meriadoc,” the wizard said again, his voice gravelly. Merry met his eyes and the small face paled. Gently he unwound Pippin’s clinging hands and moved forward to stand before the wizard. Pippin followed, both hands up to his mouth, eyes wide and anxious. Sam drifted closer, preparing himself to intervene, through in what he knew not. Then Gandalf was surging forward and Merry cried out in spite of himself. Pippin shrieked and suddenly the wizard had one small struggling form between his arms and two others attached, one hanging on each arm, shouting, “Don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt him!” and “Don’t you turn him inta anything unnatural!”
Aragorn was on his feet and trying to pry a shrieking Pippin off Gandalf while Legolas caught Samwise around the waist and pulled. The wizard rose to his feet, a silently fighting Merry in his arms. “Enough!” bellowed the wizard. “Be still, all of you!”
Dust drifted down from the earthen roof in the silence that followed the wizard’s roar. “Merry,” said Gandalf quietly. “I wanted to say ‘thank you.’ With that, he gently hugged the trembling hobbit and sat him down. Merry’s legs folded underneath him and he collapsed in a heap.
Aragorn lowered Pippin to the cool floor and Legolas Sam. Pippin immediately latched onto his cousin, staring at the wizard with frightened eyes while Sam stood glaring about him and brushing himself off with hands that shook.
“You are not angry?” asked Merry after two tries.
“Yes, I am angry,” replied Gandalf. “And annoyed. And amused and grateful. Now two of us are free when three were incarcerated. You understand Men much too well for my comfort, young Meriadoc. I pity the humans you have dealings with when you become Master of Buckland.”
“I didn’t mean for you to get in trouble -” began Merry.
Aragorn shook his head at the hobbit, silencing him. “There was enough genuine gold to bail out Gandalf and Gimli, but not Boromir. Now the town magistrate and the commander await double restitution from King Thranduil, Legolas’ father.” Merry darted a quick look at Legolas. The Elf gazed back at him serenely.
“His Majesty will send it, of course,” continued Gandalf in a softer voice, “but we cannot delay here so long to receive it. Time presses too urgently upon us. We must find Frodo and resume our journey.” He eyed Merry, who still stared at him defiantly and with some confusion. “Merry, I do not say what you did was … dishonest.” Merry opened his mouth but Gandalf overrode him. “As you said, it worked. And that miserable innkeep has already received more than his miserable hostel was worth. But in the future … please refrain from helping us in quite that manner again.”
“Does that include running shell-games?” asked Pippin.
“Pippin!” hissed his cousin in strangled tones.
Gandalf rubbed his eyes wearily. He looked over to see Aragorn and Legolas laughing quietly. Sam was staring intently as his furry feet, color high in his round face. Gimli looked back and forth between them in confusion, then met the wizard’s eyes and shrugged his thick shoulders. “I don’t think I want to know about this…” growled the wizard more to himself than them. Then he sighed, accepting the inevitable. “What shell-games?”
* * * * *
After the old man and the dwarf had departed with their friends, the commander of the guards went back into the cell area and stood outside of the bars. He had waited until the town magistrate had left, the innkeep with him, the bag of genuine and false gold clasped between them. Stupid little men, he thought. In Gondor such would never hold the trust of the people. The Steward was a hard man, but fair. He had admired Denethor all of his life … until doing his duty under the Steward had cost him the lives of his family.
Now the Steward’s heir sat on a bench in a cell, entirely at his mercy. Boromir raised his eyes to meet the grey eyes of the man who hated him so, not for any personal reason but for what his father had done.
“I am sorry for the loss of your wife and sons,” murmured Boromir.
The commander’s face twisted before he regained control of himself. “I look forward to your father being sorry for yours.”
Boromir rose and came forward. His hands grasped the bars and he stared into the relentless eyes of his countryman. “Please,” he said softly, struggling to say words that did not come easily to the captain and leader of men that he had been all of his life. “You must not hamper my friends and I. We are entrusted with a mission that may end the war our people have fought since darkness rose once more at our borders. If our Quest succeeds, Gondor will know peace.”
The guard commander stared at Boromir, not understanding his words but recognizing their absolute sincerity. “Peace?” he asked. “What is that to me? To my wife and sons? I will only know peace when the Steward bears the pain that I bear, every day of my life. When he receives word that his son is dead, killed while trying to escape from prison.”
Boromir stared at him helplessly. “I am not trying to escape.”
The guard commander smiled but it was only a baring of his teeth. His eyes burned with adamant hatred. “You will.”
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.