17. Chapter Seventeen
Their friendship was sealed when she gave him the small box of painted soldiers she had picked up on her way back. It was obvious that he had never received such an extravagant gift. He did not seem to believe that she would do him harm. Stupid child. She would slit his throat without hesitation. She would have already taken care of the inconvenient detail of his life, did not she seek some resolution to this second mistake. Third time pays for all, she thought.
She had given him the name Alissa to call her by, since he seemed to need some label for her. His foolish trust was most puzzling. Deftly she turned his chatter back to the halfling. “You said he carried nothing of value?”
The boy nodded. “Frodo didn’t even have a purse on him. The only thing he had was a gold ring strung on a silver chain. The chain was broke, but Mama fixed it. The ring was a pretty thing, but not very big and rather plain.”
“A gold ring,” she murmured, trying to tie this information in with the whispers she had overheard at the stockade. Her employer had not informed her why the halfling was wanted, only that the little one and all his possessions were to be brought to him. “Was it set with a valuable stone?”
The boy shook his dark head. “No. Just a plain gold ring.” He hesitated. “It’s going to be dark soon, and Mama will be making supper. May I go?”
Dark soon. The other hunter upon the halfling’s trail would emerge, then. She had no wish to meet it. She must obtain the halfling before the creature found the little one. Alissa smiled at the child, feeling long-unused facial muscles pull. “Soon. I’m very sorry to have hurt you, Brion.”
The boy returned her smile, his natural and brilliant and innocent. He rubbed at the small scrape on his forehead, which she had blotted before he had recovered consciousness. “It was an accident. You thought I was falling off the bars. It was good of you to try to catch me, even if you did hit my head against the wall in doing it.”
* * * * *
I knew it, thought Frodo ruefully. I was right. Waking up was a bad idea.
Slowly, the hobbit opened his eyes. “Ah, that’s better,” someone murmured. A great dark blur moved closer to him and leaned over, and resolved into the Man, Peter. Late afternoon sun slanted at his back. “Welcome back to the land of the living, Frodo. How do you feel?”
Frodo truly did not want to give consideration to that question. He tried to speak but his lips stuck together, and the inside of his mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. His discomfort was noticed immediately, and a large hand slipped behind his back, raising him carefully to place a cup of cool water at his lips. He thanked the man with his eyes, and Peter smiled in return.
“Now,” the man pressed, “ how do you feel?”
Another set of hands placed more pillows behind his back, and Peter eased him back against them. Marly came around into the hobbit’s line of sight and perched her generous self gently on his bed, careful not to jostle him. Her eyes lit with warmth when she saw him awake and aware, and Frodo found himself smiling back.
“I do not hurt,” he answered cautiously. “My leg feels … feels tight, and aches and burns a little. But it isn’t too bad.”
“Good!” answered the man heartily. “Let’s have a look at it, then.”
Those large, warm hands lifted his leg and unwrapped the linen bandages. Frodo kept his eyes averted, not trusting his stomach to behave itself. But his eyes were drawn involuntary back when Marly gasped. Hastily Peter lowered the leg, moving his body to obscure the hobbit’s view. “Oh,” he said in a soft voice.
“Is something wrong?” asked Frodo, slightly alarmed.
“Pete?” said Marly.
The man did not reply. Frodo felt his leg lifted again, turned to the side to take advantage of the westering sun. Then hands were probing over the sutures and the hobbit gasped, biting his lips against a bitter cry.
“Why don’t you give him a cuppa that echinacea tea, luv?” the man said after a moment. To Frodo’s ears, the man’s voice held an odd, strained note. Marly rose, and returned a moment later, pressing a mug into Frodo’s hands. He could not hold it with one, and resorted to wrapping both around the mug.
“Is everything all right?” Frodo pressed. “It doesn’t hurt much … well, not very much,” he added, being a truthful hobbit.
Reluctantly, Peter raised his gaze to meet that of the halfling. “The leg should have stopped draining by now, Frodo. But it looks worse than ever. The blood poisoning has advanced several more inches.” Frodo’s hands tightened on the steaming mug, unaware of the heat burning into his palms. Unnoticed, Marly took it from him.
“But it doesn’t hurt very much,” the hobbit said slowly. “If it is worse, should not it hurt the more?”
“It doesn’t hurt so much because the tissues are losing sensation due to the infection, Frodo. The pressure is strangling the conduits of the body that carry blood and nutrients to the leg.” Peter shifted on the bed, unintentionally exposing the leg to the hobbit’s view. Frodo’s stomach rose in his throat. “There must be something caught in the wound, something dirty sheltered by the flesh. Causing this corruption. I’ll have to re-open the leg an’ find it.”
Frodo made a sick sound and the man’s gaze shot to his face. “Oh, I’m sorry. I could not clean the leg as well as if I had had proper medicines…” The man’s face twisted and he fell silent.
Frodo swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. “Regardless, I am in your debt. It would be much worse if you had not drained it as best you could. Are … are you going to do this now?”
The hobbit did not understand the sudden conflict in the man’s face. “No,” he said decisively. “There is something I need to get at the apothecary’s first.” So saying, he rose from Frodo’s bedside and went to the little hearth, prying out a loose brick. Behind it was a small stack of coins, obviously the family’s emergency funds.
“You can’t do that!” exclaimed the hobbit. “I won’t take your savings, I won’t –“
Peter smiled at him. “You will, Master Frodo. I tried to treat what I knew was a bad infection without what I needed, and you’re suffering for it. I’ll do it right, this time.” These last words were not addressed to Frodo. The hobbit followed the man’s gaze as it traveled to his wife. Marly looked at the small amount of money in his hands, saved for their future through effort and deprivation. It was hoped that the little pile would someday grow enough to allow Peter to complete his healer’s training. Or to send their sons to school. It was all they had, the sum of their hopes and dreams. She nodded.
“No,” said Frodo. “No, you musn’t –“
“Rich!” called the man, overriding the hobbit’s protest. The boy appeared in the doorway and the man gave him swift instructions. If the lad knew that this was all the money his family had, he gave no sign of it. “And be sure you come straight back,” Peter finished. “Then I want you to find that brother of yours. This town isn’t so big that he shouldn’t have brought back Frodo’s friends by now. It’s almost supper-time.”
“Aye, Da,” the boy responded, and with a smile and a bow for the hobbit, took his leave.
“Make sure you buy enough, son,” Marly called after him decisively. “And I want some chamomile and some gingerroot, to encourage sleep and relieve pain.”
Frodo tried one more time. “I promise that I will replace the money, when my friends arrive,” he said softly. “One of my cousins holds my purse. Your kindness will not go unrewarded.”
“I won’t pretend that that wouldn’t be appreciated, Master Hobbit,” Peter said frankly. “But repayment or no, helping you get better is what matters to Marly an’ me.”
“Frodo,” said the woman, “we’ll hear no more about it. You drink this now.” She extended the echinacea tea towards him.
The cooling mug dropped from Marly’s hands and shattered as something flew through the unglazed window that fronted the small home. The three inside ducked instinctively as the object smashed into the bedside table and fell to the floor with a clatter. Tea from the broken mug pooled on the table and began to run down the sides.
Peter ran to the window and stared out, his craggy face blank with astonishment. Marly sensibly caught up one of Frodo’s discarded bandages and began to sop up the mess. To her amazement, the missile was not a ball such as the boys used in their street-games, but a rock. Around it, tied with twine, was a piece of paper.
Peter returned to her side, growling, “Those boys … they scattered fast enough when it came through the window. Not a one in sight. I’ll speak ‘ta their fathers…”
“Thank goodness it didn’t hit anyone. What, luv?”
With shaking hands, Marly held out with paper to him. He looked into her shocked face. “What -?” She looked about to faint. He took the paper absently, his attention on her white face, and caught her under the arm to guide her to a chair. “Sit down, luv. What’s wrong?”
“Brion -” she gestured wordlessly to the paper.
Peter angled it into the fading light and struggled through the fine, cursive script. I have your son… it began. Peter suddenly found it very necessary to sit down himself.
I have your son. If you want him back alive and unharmed, trade me the injured halfling for him. Brion tells me that there is a public garden near the town square. Meet me there one hour after full darkness, with the halfling. Tell no one. If you do no follow my instructions, I will kill your son. The note was not signed, of course. But folded into the corner of the paper was a small smear of blood, and a tuft of dark hair that both parents’ hearts knew at once.
* * * * *
Pippin sighed in relief and scooted back against Merry. From the look on Gandalf’s face when Merry had explained the source of the funds used to bail them out, he had feared that mayhem was imminent. But then the wizard had placed both his great hands on his upraised knees, and laughed and laughed and laughed. He had laughed until tears came to his eyes. Tears had streamed down his face, collected in his beard, and dripped onto the dusty wooden floor in little pitter-pats of mirth.
Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli looked at him in some concern. Gandalf groaned and wiped his eyes. “Hobbits,” he gasped, and was off again.
At last the wizard’s amusement spent itself, and he was able to meet their eyes with some degree of decorum. “No more shell-games, Merry. Promise me.”
Merry hesitated, and Gandalf’s sharp eyes narrowed. At last the young Brandybuck promised, though with obvious regret. Pippin was relieved when no punishment seemed to be forthcoming. The tweenager decided he would just keep quiet about Sam picking the lock to this little root-cellar in which they sat. No sense in pushing their luck.
“Right then,” said Aragorn, hiding his own relief. “Now, how shall we find Frodo?”
Though several suggestions were put forth, they really had little choice. It was decided that they would search for the Ring-bearer, street by street, building by building. Gimli and Legolas and Aragorn would each take a section of town, and search. Gandalf would stay behind and use his own method of searching, sparing some Power to watch over Boromir. But then they ran into an unexpected obstacle. The hobbits would not be left behind.
“It only makes sense to search in pairs,” argued Merry. “What if a message must be carried to Gandalf? In any case, Frodo will need us as soon as we find him. We know he is hurt. He’ll need us, Aragorn.”
“I’m not staying here an’ waiting,” declared Sam firmly. “You’d have to tie me an’ stuff me in a sack to keep me from looking for him.”
Aragorn cast about desperately. A hope came to him. “All right. You can come with us … if you can disguise yourself so that you don’t look like the three halflings the guardsmen are searching for, those that started a riot then blew up a grain silo.”
“We didn’t -” objected Pippin, stung.
Aragorn folded his arms. Pippin trailed off and stared at his furry feet.
“Boots,” said Merry suddenly, his eyes on his cousin’s feet. He scowled at Pippin’s feet thoughtfully, then at his own. “We’ll wear our cloaks and draw the hoods up over our heads. It will be dark. If we wear a pair of your spare boots, we’ll look like human children. The guardsmen are looking for hobbits, not a Big Person and a – I mean, an adult and a child.”
Pippin was already rooting in the packs, pulling out a pair of soft leather boots belonging to Boromir. He sat down on his behind and tried to stuff a foot into one. He rolled over on his back and pulled with both small hands. He stood up and stamped his foot. He backed up against the wooden slat wall and slammed his foot against it, trying to cow-kick the boot on. After three hard backward kicks, he made a strangled sound and slid down the wall to sit on the floor, pain on his face and tears in his eyes.
“Merry, I don’t think this is going to work. Man-boots are just too small for us.”
Merry had watched his younger cousin’s antics, ideas flowing through his quicksilver mind. Pippin was the smallest of them all; if he could not wear a pair of boots, Merry and Sam had no chance of it. “Nonsense, Pip. We’ll just have to … alter … the boots. Maybe cut them at the sole. Tie them together with string.” Seeing their dubious expressions, the hobbit continued, “Who looks at peoples’ feet anyway? We’ll put the boots on and dip our feet in mud. It will look like we are just wearing very muddy boots.”
The experiment was carried out on Boromir’s already battered boots. After the soles were sliced off, Merry tied them at Pippin’s toes and ankles and arch of the foot. Then the tweenager made a quick dash outside in the failing light and (with much enthusiasm) stomped through a mud puddle. Back in the root cellar, the Company examined the result by the careful light of Gandalf’s staff.
“Well,” said Merry, “it is not too obvious.”
Aragorn just shook his head. “I have no better suggestion, if you will not be reasonable and stay behind with Gandalf.” Three sets of adamant eyes denied that option. “All right. Merry, Sam, don your boots. We have rested and eaten, now it is time to find Frodo.”
The hobbits were unwilling to take another pair of boots from Boromir, so in the end Aragorn and Gandalf each donated a pair. Legolas’ boots were too slender and Gimli’s boots too thick, and hob-nailed besides. After coating his with mud, Sam wiggled uncomfortably. “Don’t see how you Big Folk wear these. Unnatural, this. Makes me feel like my feet are strapped to a slab.”
“Can you walk, is the question,” said Legolas.
They could, though not easily or gracefully, waddling like geese. Gimli and Sam took one quadrant of the little town, Legolas and Pippin another, and Aragorn and Merry the third. It was agreed that each team would return to the root cellar at the first hint of light in the sky. Hopefully, one of them would have located Frodo by then. Gandalf watched them go, a faint light shining from his staff, the illumination growing brighter as darkness descended in full.