18. Chapter Eighteen
Because he knew approximately where they would be, he quickly found six of the bright sparks that were the lives of the Company. Legolas’ spark was a slow-burning glow, most unlike the flickering, transient sparks that surrounded it. Gimli’s spark burned steady and strong, as unwavering as the core of the earth. Aragorn’s spark shown bright but veiled, a bonfire glimpsed through smoke. The hobbits’ life-sparks burned more brightly than the Big Folks’, dancing and bowing, and the wizard smiled to see them. A seventh burned sullenly, and the wizard worried briefly over that. Staying alert for any flare in the spark that would signal fear or sudden distress on Boromir’s part, he closed his eyes and raised his head, seeking the spark of incandescent brilliance that was Frodo.
Aragorn had said that he was injured. How badly, they did not know. His spark would be burning more dimly, the life-fires that fed it lower. Gandalf knew Frodo’s spark well, had watched it grow brighter and more complex over the years of their friendship. But there were so many sparks waving and weaving and burning in this little town. The wizard set himself to examine them, one by one, until he could find the radiant one he sought.
One flickering, dancing blaze lost among hundreds of larger, bright-burning flames that were the townsfolk...
* * * * *
“Aragorn, stop. Stop!”
The Ranger slowed, then turned in surprise when he realized that Merry was no longer by his side. The young hobbit was leaning against a wall, one foot raised, brushing mud off the concealing boots. Merry’s face, what he could see of it in the darkness, was drawn with pain.
“What is it, Merry?” Aragorn knelt and gently cradled the drawn-up foot, feeling the tightness against the confining leather. Turning it to catch the distant light of a torch, he saw that large water-filled blisters were forming on Merry’s heels and the sides of his feet. Merry gasped as he pressed one. It split and the hobbit jerked involuntarily.
“Why did you not say something sooner, Merry? These need attention.”
“I did not want to slow us down. We’ve got to find Frodo, Aragorn.”
“We will, Merry. Or Legolas and Pippin will, or Gimli and Sam will. You will do us no favor by crippling yourself. If you are in such a state, then it is likely that Sam and Pippin are, too. We had best find an apothecary and get an ointment to cleanse and heal these.”
Merry kept the hood pulled low over his face and stayed behind Aragorn as the Ranger asked passing townsfolk the location of an apothecary open at night. His courteous tone quickly won them directions to the single shop that did business past dark. The two kept to the shadows whenever possible - they had seen a guardsman in the marketplace and another talking to a man in the town square. It was clear that the hunt for the halfling miscreants was still on.
A pair of torches, burning brightly in the murky dark, lighted the healer’s shop. A boy waited at the counter so Aragorn and Merry loitered in the doorway, unwilling to intrude upon the youngster’s privacy. Merry was surprised, therefore, when Aragorn suddenly stiffened and leaned towards the soft-voiced conversation. “Powdered myrrh?” the Ranger muttered to himself. “Why would that boy need such a powerful drug?”
Unnoticed by the two already in the shop, Aragorn drifted closer and Merry followed on sore but still silent hobbit-feet. “I don’t know how much he weighs, sir,” the boy was saying earnestly. “But he’s about the size of my little brother Brion. Except for his feet, that is. They’re huge. And they have hair on them.” Merry almost yelped as Aragorn’s hand closed forcefully on his shoulder, halting his rush forward.
“Patience,” counseled the Ranger in the softest of voices. “Do not frighten him.”
Hearts racing, they waited while the boy made his purchases. He lingered to carefully count his change and Aragorn swiftly bought the ointment, telling the shop owner which ointment in what concentration with such confidence that the shopkeeper stared at him in consternation. The boy left the shop, never noticing the pair that followed.
“Merry,” Aragorn whispered. “We must get word to the others. Can you make it back to Gandalf?”
“Yes,” returned the hobbit, determinedly ignoring the increasing intense stabs of his feet. “But Aragorn, you need me. Isn’t there another way to signal them?”
“I don’t…” the Ranger began, then his eyes fell on the small shop they were passing. The shopkeeper was removing a tray of shiny metallic objects from the window in preparation for closing. “Can you trail the boy by yourself for a moment? I will follow as swiftly as I may.”
With that he darted into the shop. Merry struggled after the retreating figure, the blisters on his feet sending stabs of hot pain up his legs which he ignored stoically. Luckily the boy did not walk quickly, pausing to peer into alleys and open areas. Merry realized he was searching for someone.
So intent was he on his quarry that he jumped when Aragorn’s hand closed upon his arm. “Well done,” the Ranger whispered. “Merry, you are injuring yourself. I will carry you.”
Before he could protest, Merry found himself swung up on the Ranger’s broad back. Swallowing his protest, he locked his legs around Aragorn’s waist and clasped his hands around the man’s neck. Both of them looked down at the hobbit’s enormous feet. “Merry…” Aragorn began.
“I know, I know,” muttered the hobbit. “We might as well hang a sign around my neck – ‘Halfling, Wanted by the Guardsmen.’ How about this, then?” The hobbit wiggled and the man shifted him over to rest on his hip, as one would carry a child. Merry sighed, accepting the indignity. The Ranger was fumbling with something, putting it to his mouth. “Cover your ears, Merry,” Aragorn said.
“Why?” asked Merry. “What is -” The rest of his query was lost in a series of shrill blasts that seemed to drill right through his eardrums, on the very edge of his hearing. Merry gasped, his pointed ears tilting back, hands clamping hard over his ears. “That hurt!” he said reproachfully. “What is that?”
Aragorn held up a shiny tin tube for him to see. “It is a special whistle used by shepherds to direct their dogs in controlling the flock. It sounds in ranges above human hearing … but not above that of Elves – and hobbits, evidently.” He handed it to the hobbit who examined it curiously then tried a couple of soft toots, not so powerful as Aragorn’s blasts as he didn’t want to deafen himself. Several howls answered the nearly inaudible toots and delighted, he set himself for a slightly louder blast when Aragorn recovered it from him. “We do not want to confuse Legolas.”
“What a wonderful thing!” exclaimed Merry. “Small, light … easily transportable. I can see a market for these in the Shire. Of course, we would have to alter the range of the sound a bit, so that the dogs can still hear it without it hurting our own ears.”
“With the Brandybucks controlling the franchise?” asked Aragorn dryly.
Merry nodded, pleased beyond measure. “Of course. I found it, didn’t I?”
“Actually,” returned the Ranger. “I found it. I think I should receive half the profits.”
“Half!” Merry exclaimed in mock outrage. “Ten percent, at the most.”
“Thirty,” replied the Ranger. “But we can settle this later.” He retrieved the whistle and turned them around, facing the opposite direction.
Merry leaned into Aragorn’s shoulder and laughed. “A dog whistle? To summon an Elf? Won’t Legolas be offended?”
“He will applaud my ingenuity,” returned the man with a grin. Aragorn raised the whistle to his lips and Merry hastily covered his ears. He repeated the series of blasts, which the hobbit knew must be some code. He would have to ask Aragorn to teach it to him sometime. “Now we must find a way to get word to Gimli and Sam and Gandalf.”
* * * * *
Another heard the almost inaudible shrill blasts, above the range of hearing of human folk. The creature had waited impatiently for full dark, sleeping little, its mind on the treasure it had almost possessed. It did not know the code and dismissed the whistle-notes as beneath its notice. It had amused itself for a while burning alive the small brown mice that scurried along the baseboards of the dusty shed in which it had taken refuge from the Sun. Their tiny shrieking death screams cheered it and distracted it from its broken nose and other pains. When that diversion paled, it gathered its voluminous cloak about itself and brooded on what it had chanced upon.
Power unimaginable was within its grasp. Power and revenge. After it had killed the pitiful humans, it would take the Ring. The little one it would keep alive for a while. It owed the hobbit for that kick, and for the hurts taken in kidnapping it. Those hurts would be repaid many, many times over before he finally allowed it to die. With such a treasure as it was about to possess it could draw out the miserable little being’s agony for years uncounted. What a pleasant thought. The creature rose from the dusty bench in the dirty shed that had been its hiding place for day, and slipped out into the dark.
* * * * *
Pippin almost bumped into the Elf as Legolas stumbled, an unprecedented occurrence in the hobbit’s recollection. The tweenager grasped the Elf’s arm and steadied him, noting the expression of discomfort on Legolas’ fair face. “What is it, Legolas? Are you all right?”
“Quiet, Pippin,” said the Elf absently, his head turning, obviously listening. Pippin immediately shut his eyes, listening too with all of his might. He could barely catch the short, staccato bursts of not-sound.
He was still listening fiercely when the Elf tapped him on the head. “Come, little one. We are to meet Aragorn and Merry in a place. Hurry.”
Pippin gulped. “Legolas, you go on ahead. I can’t. Hurry, that is.”
Hearing the distress in the young one’s voice, the Elf turned gracefully and knelt before him, looking into his eyes. “Why can you not?”
“These boots -” Pippin got no farther. Legolas’ slender hands were already untying the twine that held Boromir’s battered boots to the hobbit’s feet.
“Oh, Pippin,” the Elf said softly, and Pippin felt an unaccountable urge to burst into tears. Legolas stroked his long hands over the blisters and the burning pain seemed to decrease. “No more of these,” he said, drawing his dagger then cutting the leather boots up the sides and peeling them away. “Can you walk, or shall I carry you?”
Freed from the chafing boots, Pippin dug his toes into the cold, soft earth gratefully. “I can walk.”
* * * * *
When they saw the boy walking up the steps to a small house and letting himself in, Aragorn sought an unlit porch and lowered Merry to the wooden floor, crouching in the darkness. The man raised the whistle to his lips and blew another series of inaudible bursts, then repeated it. This time Merry covered his ears without needing a warning.
He unplugged his ears at a cry from within the house - a shriek, rather. The boy appeared in the doorway, a sheet of paper clutched in his hand. The light of a distant torch was just sufficient to illuminate his face, white as the parchment. He looked wildly about but did not see them in the darkness. The boy leaped from the top step and landed in the street, gathering his legs under himself to run.
In a flash Aragorn was out of hiding and had caught up the boy, the Ranger’s hand over his mouth. The boy’s eyes went even wider and he tried to twist himself free, kicking at his captor. His arms went back over his head and caught at Aragorn’s long hair, winding themselves in the tangled locks and jerking. Merry saw Aragorn’s eyes tear but he did not relax his hold, whispering to the boy all the while. He swung the boy off his feet and clasped him against his body, pulling them both into the shadowed porch beside Merry.
A long sliver of light appeared on the recessed doorway of one of the neighboring houses and an old woman peered out apprehensively. Her gaze swept over them, seeing nothing amiss in the darkness and the boy struggled, trying to free himself. But he was no match for the man. They all watched as the woman shrugged and closed her door. The boy sagged in Aragorn’s grip, tears of fear running down his face. “Peace, youngster,” Aragorn whispered in his ear. “Do not fear. I swear I will not hurt you. I promise you. We seek only to speak with you. Will you keep silent if I remove my hand?”
The child nodded frantically. Aragorn dropped his hand, only to clamp it across the boy’s mouth again when he felt the boy’s ribcage expand.
Merry moved forward and the boy’s eyes fastened on him, widening in shock. “Please,” the hobbit whispered. “We won’t hurt you. We seek my kinsman. He has been taken from us. We mean you no harm.”
The boy twisted his head, obviously wanting to talk. Cautiously Aragorn withdrew his hand. “You’re Frodo’s friends?” the boy asked, eyes devouring Merry with eager curiosity.
“I’m his cousin,” Merry assured him, his heart leaping upon hearing Frodo’s name. “Meriadoc Brandybuck, at your service.” Merry placed one hand upon his stomach and the other at the small of his back and bowed. “This is Aragorn. He isn’t as frightening as he appears.” Merry smiled at the lad and waggled his eyebrows, trying to convey to the boy that the Ranger was harmless.
The boy looked like he doubted that. He flushed, remembering his attempt to cry out after he had said he would not. Aragorn smiled at him, guessing what the lad was thinking. “I would have shouted out, too, had two such disreputable-looking ruffians plucked me from my doorstep.”
“Speak for yourself, sir,” objected Merry, glad to see the boy no longer looked quite so frightened. “I’ll have you know that I am considered quite the handsome rake in the Shire.”
“Frodo talked about the Shire,” interjected the boy eagerly. “It is the land of the halflings, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but we prefer to be called ‘hobbits’,” said Merry. “May I ask your name, young sir?”
The boy flushed again and attempted a bow. Aragorn released him and stepped back. The youngster hardly noticed. “Forgive me, sirs. My name is Rich. Richard, actually, but no one calls me that unless I am in trouble.”
“Me, too,” agreed Merry. “I mean, everyone calls me Merry unless I am in trouble.”
The boy paled and Merry wondered what he had said. Rich swayed on his feet and Aragorn reached out to clasp his shoulder. The boy turned to him and thrust the paper he had been holding in a death-grip at the Ranger. “They’ve taken my brother!” he cried. “Da says they’ve been told to trade Frodo for him!”
Aragorn took the paper from the boy’s shaking hand and read it, then passed it to Merry. The hobbit angled it to catch the light of distant torches and struggled to make out the uncertain, straggling script:
We’ve taken Frodo to the public gardens near the town square. We’ve been told Brion will be killed unless we give Frodo to them. Frodo will not permit us to seek help from the guard. He has required us to agree. Don’t tell anyone. Stay home. Wait for us. Stay home.
Three startled gasps greeted the Elf’s gentle query, Aragorn’s hand going to his sword. Legolas froze and put his hand on Pippin’s shoulder, holding the young hobbit back until he knew the situation. Pippin’s curly head turned from person to person, catching the tension but unknowing of its source. “We did not mean to frighten you,” Legolas continued when they had been recognized. “Is everything all right?”
“Have you found Frodo?” asked Pippin, his eyes on Merry.
“No,” said Aragorn grimly. “Things have gone ill.”
Rich was staring back and forth between the two parties, torn between horror and confusion and fascination at seeing an Elf and yet another halfling. Suddenly he shuddered and sank down on the deserted porch, dropping his head into his hands. Aragorn crouched down by him. “Lean over, Rich. Put your head between your knees. Good. Now breathe. Good.” His hand on the boy’s back, the Ranger rubbed in slow, comforting circles while he addressed Legolas and Pippin over the bowed head.
“This is Richard – Rich. This boy’s family has been kind enough to care for Frodo. The one who took Frodo must have trailed him to Rich’s home. Now his younger brother is being held for his ransom. His parents have gone with Frodo to make the exchange with the abductor.” Merry handed the note to Legolas, who read it then passed it on Pippin.
“What are we going to do?” murmured Pippin in the silence that followed.
“Legolas and I are going to the public garden. You and Merry and Rich will stay here, Pippin.”
“No!” cried Pippin and Rich together, but suddenly Merry was between them. “Hush,” said the hobbit. “Hush.”
Aragorn met Merry’s eyes and nodded. Merry returned the nod, his hands tightening on his cousin’s shoulder, and on the boy’s. Without another word, the Ranger and Elf slipped out into the darkness and were lost to sight in moments.
“Merry, they can’t leave us behind!” whispered Pippin.
“They aren’t going to, Pip. We’re just going to let them get far enough ahead to think that they are. Rich can guide us to the gardens, can’t you, Rich?”
“Aye,” the boy responded. “That I can.”
They waited for almost five minutes before starting out. Despite their damaged feet, the hobbits were much quieter than the human boy, and without telling Rich why, Merry required them to drop farther back to be out of range of the Elf’s keen hearing. Intent on trailing Aragorn and Legolas, none of the three heard the stealthy steps that came after them, nor saw a cloaked figure lift the paper from where a stunned Pippin had dropped it. After a moment, the paper flared into a single tongue of bright flame and was consumed. Hissing its soft laughter, the shadow followed them into the night.
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.