22. Chapter Twenty-Two
Every warrior knows that moment in the heat of battle when all about him slows to an eternity, when each movement around him becomes a crawl. Aragorn suffered that now. The throwing-star was a twirling circle of glittering knives, the blades turning like a child’s pinwheel, each revolution clear and distinct to his eyes despite the speed at which it was moving. Pippin was trying to focus on the shining thing coming towards him. The young one’s face scrunched up as he tried to identify what it was, even as his feet carried him forward towards his collapsed cousin.
A few paces behind him, Merry had not seen the deadly missile; his gaze was all on Frodo. Frodo had made no sound after that one agonized cry. He had pulled up the injured leg to his body and was rocking frantically on the cobbles. The boy ran clumsily behind them, larger than either of the hobbits, not understanding what was happening but determined not to be left behind.
With tortuous slowness, Aragorn’s mouth opened and a single word crawled from his throat to his lips. “Pippin!” or “Down!” he never knew.
Slowly, far too slowly, one of Pippin’s hands moved before his breast to deter the object flying toward him. The tweenager had no chance; the star would shear through the flesh and bone and find its target still. Aragorn was unable to look away. Then suddenly there was movement at the edge of his vision and before he could blink an elvish arrow was intercepting the star, deflecting it upward and away from its deadly path. Star and arrow both whistled a hairs-breadth past Pippin’s cheek and were lost to sight in the night.
Merry saw something flash by his head, then it was whirling past him to clatter to the cobbles behind him but he had no attention to spare for it. He plunged after Pippin, desperate and determined.
Now events speeded up again and Aragorn found he was running towards the woman, his sword in his hand. Legolas was shouting at him not be caught in his line of fire but he could not heed the Elf’s words. His need to reach Frodo and the adrenaline and anger pulsing through his veins at the near loss of Pippin made him careless to any danger to himself.
It seemed to Aragorn that the woman stood momentarily frozen. He saw her head turn from his rush towards the nearer threat, the three approaching small ones. Merry was drawing his small sword, his face grim. She was caught between them. And he was coming fast, his sword raised for a killing blow, an equally furious Elf at his heels. In a calculated instant, the woman made her choice.
Gold offered for the halfling was not worth her life, Alissa decided. Coins cannot be spent by a corpse. She had no chance of escaping with Frodo now, running burdened from this swift man and swifter Elf. Abandoning her intent with the ruthless practicality of her people, Alissa whirled silently and in a graceful leap a gazelle could barely have equaled, disappeared from the dark street.
Pippin reached Frodo first, falling to his knees beside his writhing cousin with an involuntary shout of pain that indicated he had forgotten the streets here were not paved with soft dirt or grass. He slid his arms around his kinsman and hugged him, great gulping sobs of relief overflowing from him. Merry reached Frodo next and caught them both in a tight embrace, his sword clattering unnoticed to the ground. Frodo looked bewildered, even more so when Aragorn loomed over him a heartbeat later with Legolas at his side.
“What…” tried Frodo. “How… Merry? Pip? But -” He stared up in absolute confusion over his cousins’ heads at the Big People. Legolas greeted him with a single joyous smile, then the Elf’s star-filled eyes were scanning the shadows and buildings, an arrow nocked, his bow ready in his slender hands.
Easing Pippin aside, Aragorn forced himself not to demand of the youngster if he had been hurt or reprimand him for his impulsive action. Instead, his hand lingered tightly on the young hobbit’s shoulder before sinking to his knees at Frodo’s side. Aragorn sheathed his sword and steadied Frodo so that he could sit upright, his healer’s eyes already on the bandages. This close, he smelled infection and saw that even through the joy that filled the Ring-bearer’s eyes, he was in great pain. “Hello, Frodo,” he remarked casually, his voice filled with reassurance. “If you are quite through gallivanting all over this town, your cousins and the rest of the Fellowship would appreciate you staying in one place for a few moments.”
Frodo laughed weakly. His right hand was held between both of Merry’s and Pippin crouched at his back, cradling his head and stroking his hair. He could not move even if he wanted to. “Hullo,” he replied. “I was beginning to wonder if you had decided to go on without me.”
Aragorn laughed, a world of relief in the sound, then gently pried Frodo’s cousins off him and slid his arms carefully under the hobbit’s knees and shoulders. Lifting him, he saw his image mirrored in a roughly-dressed man who stood before him, a still figure cradled in his arms. A choked cry from behind him made him turn his head as the human boy, Rich, rushed past them and into the woman’s enfolding arms. Then he was turning and tugging on his brother’s arm. Brion snorted and grumbled in his sleep. “Is he all right?” sobbed the boy. “Is he all right?”
“He’s all right,” assured the man, his eyes never leaving the Ranger’s. “Yours?”
“He will be,” said Aragorn with a grin at the hobbit. Frodo’s eyes were on the sleeping boy and tears glinted in their corners, but he was smiling.
“Please,” said the man. “Come back with us to our home. We can tend to Frodo there.”
Aragorn hesitated for a moment, torn between carrying word to Gandalf and giving the hobbit the immediate medical attention he needed. One glance down into Frodo’s white face decided him. “Thank you,” he said softly. “I am a healer. I would be grateful for the use of your supplies.”
Merry hesitated as their small party followed Peter back up the darkened street. Light from one of the thoroughfare torches glinted off something and he swung a little away from the others to investigate. Where … ah, here. One of Legolas’ arrows, and something he could not identify. Merry picked up the spent bolt to return it to the Elf and turned the odd piece of metal over in his fingers. He almost did not feel the slice it cut along his finger, so sharp it was. Merry sucked in his breath and lifted the bleeding finger automatically to his mouth.
He prided himself upon his ability to throw a knife – this was another kind of throwing knife. Many blades instead of one, designed to strike and burrow its way into flesh until spent or stopped by something harder than bone. This was what had flown past him, had been aimed for Pippin’s heart. Merry swayed, suddenly lightheaded, and broke into a cold sweat. He took a great breath of air to calm himself, closed his eyes for a moment. Opening them, he folded the deadly thing carefully into his handkerchief and stored it in a pocket of his cloak, and hurried after the others.
Introductions were made as they walked. The townsman and his wife stared in undisguised awe at the Elf and in some trepidation at the Ranger, despite Rich’s assurances that Aragorn “was not as dangerous as he looks.” Merry ducked his head at that, mirth sparkling in his eyes.
Among so many boots and padding feet and soft-voiced but urgent questions and answers, even the keen-eared Legolas did not hear the stealthy menace that shadowed them. The creature had remained hidden while the female gave up her prize, remembering that the Elf’s bow had already hurt it. Though fond of giving pain to weaker creatures, it did not relish it for itself. And even it could see that the little one needed aid that it could not give. It would see the hobbit treated, then take the greatest satisfaction in recovering it and keep it alive as long as possible for its own amusement. But before experiencing that pleasure, it would enjoy killing the little one’s guardians and burning the humans’ home down about their heads.
* * * * *
Gandalf and Boromir emerged first from the alleyway and stared at the empty gates of the public gardens. Gimli waited patiently for the two to move, but Sam edged around the soldier and darted into the gardens, unheeding of Gandalf’s growled, “Samwise! Get back here!”
Sam obeyed, but only after assuring himself that his master was nowhere to be found. “They’re not here,” he panted. “Where’ve they all gone?”
Gandalf muttered to himself about hobbits and men and elves who simply would not stay put, then grasped his staff with both hands and closed his eyes. The three fell silent around him and watched in wonder and excitement, sensing that they were close as the wizard’s head turned towards the street recently taken by their errant members. And something else.
Gandalf had thought long and hard on what that life-spark was that trailed after Frodo and the others. It did not burn brightly like the lives around it, but smoldered in a way that the Istari had never before seen. It burned like a banked fire, consuming without sharing of its heat, dark and smoking with old hates. It too was near. Warily, the wizard kept watch upon it and urged his small party to greater speed.
It was not far to the little home that Peter provided for his family, and the small house seemed very small indeed when filled with so many people. Marly looked somewhat intimidated but quickly busied herself in directing Rich to light candles and provide their guests water as she began to prepare what food there was in the larder. Pippin and Merry waited with Aragorn and Frodo as Peter gently carried his son to his room and laid him in his own small bed. Brion grunted and rubbed his nose, then curled up on his side, deeply asleep. Aragorn watched the father stand by the boy’s bed for a moment and run his hand gently through the boy’s dark hair. He did not miss the tears in Peter’s eyes when he returned.
“You can put Master Frodo in Rich’s room. It’s a bit bigger. I’ll ask Rich ’ta heat water, and help you as much as I can.” Peter sighed. “I’ve some training … just enough to know when an injury is beyond my poor skills.”
Aragorn nodded, grateful for the help. It would be needed, he thought, looking down into the Ring-bearer’s pale, rigid face. The Ranger had walked as smoothly as he could, but each step had aggravated the injury and more of the dark yellow, foul-smelling liquid now stained the bandages. Frodo made a soft sound as he was laid down, and Merry caught up his hand and patted it.
Rich brought Aragorn a chair and another for his father, then as there was no more room, stood in the doorway waiting to fetch whatever was needed. Peter asked him for the water and the boy nodded and left, eager to assist. Pippin’s face began to go green as Aragorn unwound the bandages. Merry leaned over and put a hand on the tweenager’s shoulder. “Why don’t you help Marly, Pip? I’ll stay with Frodo.” Pippin shook his head determinedly. “Frodo needs me, Merry.”
Merry’s gentle suggestion had drawn Aragorn’s attention to the youngling’s queasiness. “I am sure that Marly would appreciate your help, Pippin. Legolas is no good in a kitchen. He would probably set the house afire.”
Pippin giggled despite himself. “I suppose I should save him, then. And the house. And the rest of the town … what’s left of it, anyway.” Rich smiled at him from his post in the doorway, and the tweenager went to Marly, reassured that his cousin was in the best of hands.
Aragorn’s face did not change as he laid the last of the linen aside; he was too experienced a healer for that. But Merry gasped audibly and Peter shut his eyes. “I did what I could for him,” the man whispered. “But I didn’t have the proper medicines…”
Frodo was by now only half-aware, and Aragorn was grateful for that. Gently he lifted the infected limb and examined it, noting how his light touch brought more of the oozing matter to the surface. Rich brought in a steaming pot of water and set it carefully at Aragorn’s feet.
“Rich,” said the Ranger, his voice low and even to avoid disturbing his patient, “Did I not hear you purchasing a packet of powdered myrrh at the apothecary’s? I would greatly like to use it.”
The boy gasped in sudden recollection and fumbled in his pocket. He handed Aragorn the twisted piece of paper and the Ranger carefully unwound it, spreading the precious powder and examining it. “Good,” he murmured softly. “Yes, very good. Now the hot water.” Rich lifted the pot and Aragorn carefully poured in half of the powder, swishing it with the wooden cook-spoon Marly had left in the pot. “Now we let that infuse,” he said, aware that Peter was watching closely, “and prepare the leg.”
“Prepare the leg?” repeated Merry. Displaced by the two Men, he had wiggled himself up onto the bed behind Frodo, bracing his back against the wall and supporting Frodo’s upper body against his chest. Thus settled comfortably, he captured both of Frodo’s arms, crossing them across his cousin’s chest and holding the cold hands tightly in his own.
Aragorn nodded abstractedly. He made a quick, preemptory motion and Peter leaned over and placed one large hand on the hobbit’s ankle and the other on Frodo’s hip. Effectively immobilized, Frodo shut his eyes and turned his face into Merry’s chest.
“I am going to press the infection out of your leg now, Frodo,” Aragorn said softly. “It will hurt, but it looks like there has been some damage to the surface nerves around the infection, so the pain will not be too great. Once the pus is cleaned out, we can apply the medicine and it will begin to heal.”
Frodo bucked upwards involuntarily when Aragorn began apply pressure but Merry held him down firmly, his face as white as his cousin’s though he did not flinch. “Ah, I’m sorry, Frodo,” Aragorn soothed. “It will be over shortly. You are doing very well.” Frodo nodded tightly, his eyes squeezed shut, his breath coming too fast. Merry transferred both icy hands to one of his own and used the other to stroke the hair away from his cousin’s forehead and kiss it, murmuring softly in his ear too low for the others to hear.
Forcing himself to remember that this was necessary, Aragorn distanced his mind from the pain he was causing and methodically pushed all of the stinking matter he could from the ragged wound. When at last no more bubbled forth, all of them released a sigh of relief. “Now then,” said the Ranger briskly, “this will not hurt so much.” A sweet, spicy scent filled the tiny room as he lifted the pot, no longer steaming but still warm. He bathed the entire leg, then concentrated on pouring small amounts directly into the wound.
Frodo jerked violently, but more in surprise than pain. Gasping slightly, he dared to open his eyes and Merry loosed his death-grip upon his cousin’s hands. Seeing this, Aragorn smiled. “Better, yes?”
“Better,” confirmed Frodo shakily. He relaxed slowly as the Ranger continued the treatment, until his eyes were slowly closing and he slept, pushed beyond the last of his strength.
Peter sighed as the hobbit at last drifted off. “We didn’t want ‘ta do it, you know,” he whispered, wiping away a tear on his rough sleeve. “Frodo insisted that we give him to that – that woman. We didn’t want to, but Brion … my son…”
“I understand,” Aragorn replied, equally softly. “We all do. You had to make the exchange.” Merry looked over Frodo’s slumbering form into the townsman’s eyes and nodded.
Aragorn gathered up the stinking, soiled bandages and gave them to Rich to be disposed off. The boy wrinkled his nose but took them without complaint, long accustomed to helping his father. Then Aragorn bent over the sleeping hobbit’s leg and taking most of the remaining powder, sprinkled it directly into the wound. Frodo grimaced in his sleep but settled back as Merry stroked his hair and crooned something softly.
The Ranger positioned a single clean bandage over the wound and secured it. As silently as possible, he handed Peter the emptied pot and twisted back up the small amount of myrrh for later use. That done, he motioned them all out of the room. At Aragorn’s firm gesture, Merry reluctantly laid Frodo’s hands at his sides and eased himself out from behind his cousin, lowering his head gently to the pillow. The Ranger paused in the doorway for a moment, his gaze returning to the deeply slumbering hobbit. Light from the adjoining room glinted briefly on something at the little one’s throat and Aragorn felt an irrational surge of rage at whatever fates that chosen this valiant heart for such a task. “Sleep, Ring-bearer,” he whispered. “You are safe now.”
It was a quarter-hour later when the poorly-glazed window of the tiny room was swung open, pushed from the outside. Quick as a striking snake, a dark form crawled over the sill and steadied itself on the bedpost. A forked tongue tested the air, tasting the scents of powdered myrrh and pain, of many and varied lives in the adjoining room. It had waited until it heard no further movement in the small room, until the door stopped opening every few moments to check on the sleeping one. Keen ears caught the muffled words of soft voices through the closed door but none approached. Then it snarled and turned towards the bed, a gag in its clawed hands.
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.