23. Chapter Twenty-Three
At Gandalf’s gesture, Boromir moved forward and knocked on the door. A moment later, it creaked open a little way and a teenaged boy peered out. He stared at the soldier open-mouthed, as if Boromir had coalesced on his porch from starlight and dust.
His wide-eyed gaze traveled over the other three strangers, and then surprisingly settled on Sam. “Oh! A hobbit!” the boy said, a grin breaking over his face.
Sam found the wizard’s long fingers on his shoulder, propelling him forward none-too-gently. “Hullo,” he said tentatively, looking up at the child.
A Man appeared behind the lad and stared at them with much the same expression. “You must be the rest of Frodo’s friends,” Peter rallied after a moment. “Won’t you sirs come in? And welcome.” The door swung wide.
Gardener, wizard and warriors trooped through the door with many bows and polite words of greeting. Peter held the door for them then peered out into the night. “Any more of you out there?”
Gandalf hastened to reassure the man that this was indeed the entire party. The wizard turned to find a grinning Ranger behind him. Aragorn had positioned himself behind Rich as the boy answered the knock at the door, sliding himself behind it, his sword drawn. Legolas had sunk to a crouch in the shadowy entryway, his long knives ready in his hands. Peter looked nervous at the precautions, his frightened eyes flicking to his family. That such measures had proved unnecessary was a relief to all.
The reunion between the two parties was brief but heartfelt. After embracing the old wizard, Aragorn had drawn the newcomers to the door of the little bedroom and lifted a candle high to show them the sleeper. The dim light had fallen on Frodo’s face, drawn and pale, but at peace and safe at last.
Gandalf had closed his eyes for a moment, tears gathering in his eyes. Sam had wept silently and unashamedly, burying his face in his hands. Gimli and Boromir were silent but long-set tensions left their shoulders and Boromir sighed audibly in relief. Then Aragorn closed the door and herded them all back into the main room. The little family stood back for a moment; overwhelmed by the number and strangeness of their visitors. Then Marly shook her head. “I never thought I’d see the day, “she murmured. “Rich, set another kettle on the fire for tea. Peter, find me what’s left in the pantry. Both of you, wash up first. Then bring our guests basins and towels.” Giving orders with a briskness that a major-general would have envied, the woman soon had her guests divested of their cloaks and seated with a mug of hot, sweetened tea in each pair of hands.
Aragorn and Legolas spoke first, telling of Frodo’s recovery. “That was a woman?” asked Boromir, scandalized and intrigued at once. “There was no hint of it when she made the attempt upon young Pippin. What a magnificent creature she must be!”
Then Boromir related what had happened after the others left the garrison, until Gandalf’s timely rescue of him. Mindful of the innocent ears that listened, he did not elaborate upon the guard commander’s reason for such hatred of him, but he saw the wizard nod and knew that what he left unsaid would be recounted later. When the soldier concluded his tale with the burning of the guardhouse, Rich went to the door and looked out at the orange glow in the sky. The boy would have sought a better vantage point from the end of the street but Legolas placed a slender hand on his shoulder, cautioning him to stay in the safety of the doorway and moved lightly past him. Hand on his knife and watching the shadows, the Elf drifted to where he had the best view. Returning, he reported that the fire was moving closer. Peter and Marly looked worried at that. The Fellowship understood; fire could spread quickly among old, dry wooden buildings. This they had seen for themselves, and the townsfolk and travelers exchanged worried glances.
Every few minutes, one or another of them would get up and ease open the bedroom door to check on Frodo. Aragorn had forbidden them to wake him, so his anxious friends had to reassure themselves that he was truly there from the doorway. Merry and Pippin had stood watching their cousin sleep for a long time, until Gandalf shooed them back into the main room. Sam had to check that his master’s covers were pulled up and that there was water by the bed, and straighten out Frodo’s pack, until the wizard finally caught him by the ear and gently but firmly marched him to the door. Then instead of returning to the others, Gandalf found himself standing and watching Frodo sleep until Aragorn reminded him to sit down and rest as well.
Returning to the small room, the wizard dispossessed three hobbits of a thread-bare settee (by virtue of age, he declared) and allowed Marly and Rich to serve him tea and biscuits while Peter recounted what had occurred since they had found Frodo bleeding and unconscious on their porch.
Aragorn listened to the other tales quietly after his and Legolas’ was told, his blue-grey eyes intent, hands busy examining the damage to Pippin’s feet. The string used to tie on the boots had chaffed the hobbits over their toes and ankles, and large, water-filled blisters had formed on the sides and top of their feet. The thick, curly hair on their foot-tops had protected them somewhat, but mud had dried in the hair and Aragorn was forced to pull to loosen the balls of mud. Seeing tears start in the young one’s eyes, the Ranger stopped and patted the foot comfortingly, then asked Marly for a basin large enough for hobbit-feet. Pippin gritted his teeth, an involuntary whimper rising in his throat as the Ranger carefully washed the rest of the mud off the sore, blistered feet and dried them, then ever-so-gently smoothed on the ointment he had purchased.
“How did you get this cut on your cheek, Pippin?” Aragorn asked, tracing a finger below a one-inch slice that the tweenager had not even felt. Pippin raised a hand and examined the cut in surprise, then shrugged. As Aragorn washed it, Merry closed his eyes and tried to quiet his pounding heart. So close, so close. Had Legolas’ arrow not deflected the whirling knife-thing, Pippin would certainly have died. Had the arrow not been deflected just so by the weapon, the bolt itself might have killed his cousin. Fodder for yet more nightmares... The skill to aim an arrow to deflect a swift and spinning blade from its intended target and yet only barely graze unprotected flesh was beyond Merry’s comprehension. He could not grasp such proficiency with a bow. And the courage that it must have taken Legolas to instantaneously risk the shot, knowing that he could have killed Pippin, whom he loved. Knowing that Pippin would die did he not try. Opening his eyes, Merry found the Elf’s gentle eyes upon him. The hobbit looked into that clear gaze and put his thanks in his eyes, hurriedly scrubbing away the tears that ran down his cheek before Pippin saw. Legolas nodded soberly in reply, understanding on his fair face and in his starry eyes.
The cleansing done, Aragorn picked Pippin up and carried him over to a soft pile of cushions before the hearth fire, setting him down with an admonition to stay there and rest. The tweenager curled into a ball before the warmth, more than happy to do so.
Merry was treated next, bearing the attention in stoic silence. Seeing the traces of blood on his hand, Aragorn had the hobbit spread his fingers and examined the sharp slice he found across one. “Merry,” the Ranger said sternly, and waited for an explanation.
Merry grimaced. He glanced at his exhausted cousin and replied in a low voice, “I picked up the metal knife-thing the woman threw. It cut me.”
Aragorn stiffened and looked more closely at the cut. “Those throwing-stars are deadly, Meriadoc. And sometimes poisoned. “ He took a deep breath, relieved. “You were lucky that this one apparently was not.” He washed the small, deep cut and bound it, folding the hand up against Merry’s breast to prevent it bleeding anew. “I would think you had learned your lesson about picking up odd things you come across.” Merry flushed and ducked his head at the mild reprimand. Even as he had bent to retrieve the unknown thing, the terrible memory of doing the same to gather up the palantír shards on the road to Hollin had risen in his mind. But the recollection still had not been sufficient to deter his curiosity.*
Aragorn sat him down next to the tweenager and Pippin immediately laid his head in Merry’s lap, asleep in seconds. Merry kept one ear tilted back to hear the tale-telling, but most of his attention seemed to be on stroking his cousin’s hair and staring into the small fire, thinking.
“Come on, Sam,” Aragorn said. “Your turn. Let me see how you fared.”
“No need, sir,” said Sam hastily, tucking one grimy foot behind the other. “I’m fine, I am.”
“None of that,” Aragorn replied. “Your feet need to be washed and treated. Now, Sam.”
“Yes, sir,” sighed the hobbit. He steadied himself with a hand on the Ranger’s shoulder while Aragorn dipped a hairy foot into the basin. Aragorn turned the just-washed foot carefully and looked into the hobbit’s eyes. “I told you hobbits wearing boots was unnatural,” Sam said with a diffident grin. “Some of us had the good hobbit-sense to take ‘em off right off.” Merry glared at him but as Sam was right, Merry gave up on making a convincing effort of it and gave him a lopsided smile instead.
A startled gasp from the doorway of the smallest bedroom informed them that Brion had woken up at last. The boy rubbed his eyes, staring in disbelief at the odd assemblage of people in his house. A strange sight they presented to his eyes, indeed. People overflowed his tiny, familiar home making it seem a magical place; hobbits curled before the fire, a dwarf perched on a stool, an Elf was seated gracefully on the floor, his legs too long for the short chairs. Among such company, two men and a shabby old wizard hardly merited a glance.
Marly was across the room with a speed that denied her girth and caught her young son in her arms, kissing him soundly. Brion squirmed, more interested in their guests than being kissed by his mother. Peter laughed and pried his son free, hugging him briefly himself, then lowered him to the floor and watched proudly as the little boy bowed to each member of the Company and introduced himself.
“Frodo will be all right, then?” Brion asked, having been given just enough of the story to reassure him. “Alissa was very nice to me – she said she didn’t mean to hurt me, it was an accident when she tried to catch me from falling. She gave me a box of painted soldiers! They’re in my cloak. Rich, come look!” Lured away by the excitement of seeing such an extravagant gift, the brothers disappeared into Brion’s tiny room to examine the treasure.
“What you have done,” Gandalf said softly when the boys were gone, “cannot be repaid. Frodo is dear to us for many reasons, not the least for one we cannot discuss. I hope that someday we can return and tell you how you helped preserve the hope of all Middle-earth.”
Marly exchanged a look with her husband and smiled. “He needed help,” she replied simply.
“And you gave it, when many would not,” said Aragorn softly, unsmiling. “And you suffered for it. Things might have gone very differently. That you were willing to help, and still willing after things turned ill … will be remembered and rewarded someday, if it is within my power. This I do swear.”
Gandalf looked at his old friend, and saw beneath the weariness and still-present smudges and smoke damage the shining glimmer of all his hopes. That image faded back into a worn and weather-beaten Ranger when Aragorn stood.
“We thank you for your offer of hosting us for what remains of the night, but I feel that we should be moving. Our fortunes in this town have gone ill, and we should leave.”
“Hasn’t been so good for the town, neither,” Sam whispered to Merry. Merry nodded, his face abstracted. Sam noticed that Merry had picked apart the seams of one of the tattered cushions. That particular cushion now seemed very heavy - the fabric strained against a great weight as Merry struggled to draw the threads shut. The cushion clinked.
A tired grin passed over Sam’s face. “Mr. Merry -”
“Don’t say anything, Sam,” Merry whispered in return. “They wouldn’t take it, you know they wouldn’t. Maybe Peter can go to Minas Tirith someday, use it to finish his training as a healer. They won’t find it till we’re gone.”
Sam slid two fingers into the space Merry had picked open and extracted one of the gold coins. “These are all real, aren’t they?”
Merry tried to look stung. “Yes, they are. Almost the last of them. I’ve kept just a little for us in case we need supplies later on.”
To Merry’s surprise, Sam slipped the gold coin into his pocket. “To repay the folk who own the root cellar,” the gardener explained, flushing slightly. “For all we ate, and using the cellar ‘ta hide in. I’ll put it where they’ll find it when we leave. Wouldn’t be right, otherwise.”
Merry rolled his shoulders and rubbed the small of his back, aching and tired. “Ah, Sam, this being honest is a heavy burden to bear.” The hobbits looked up as Gandalf stood. Merry leaned over Pippin and pulled his nose gently. “Wake up, Pip,” he murmured. “Come on, my dear. We’ve got to be going again.”
Pippin murmured a sleepy protest and swatted at his nose. “Let him sleep until we go,” Sam said softly. “Maybe one of the Big Folk will carry the poor lad.”
The hobbits returned their attention to the conversation behind them. Marly was protesting, assuring Gandalf that they were welcome to spend the night, if only on the floor. The wizard was shaking his bearded head gently, thanking her, but saying they had caused enough grief to this family. When she would have protested more, Peter wrapped his arms around her waist and whispered in her ear, his face regretful but accepting.
Brion and Rich reappeared to say their farewells, sorrowful that these fascinating folk would not be staying. As the Company donned their cloaks and swung up their packs, Aragorn sank down on one knee before the children, staring into their eyes. “Thank you for befriending Frodo,” he said to them gently. “Perhaps someday you will receive a summons from a distant city called Minas Tirith, asking if you would like to become royal pages and serve the King. Should that day ever come, I pray you will accept.” The Ranger smiled, his eyes soft and distant. “Perhaps I shall see you there.”
The boys did not understand but they looked at this tall man’s solemn face and knew that what he said was important. They nodded. Peter did understand and he smiled wistfully. “The return of the King,” he murmured. “May we live to see it come to pass.”
“Boromir, will you carry Pippin?” Merry asked. “He is so tired.”
“Of course,” the soldier said. “Up you go, little one.” Pippin turned his face into the man’s scratchy surcoat with a muttered complaint but did not wake. Legolas smiled at the young hobbit and carefully tucked Pippin’s cloak about him.
Their leave-takings done, Gimli and Legolas were already stepping onto the porch as Gandalf reluctantly approached the door to Frodo’s room. The wizard wished that it was possible to stay the night and let Frodo and the other hobbits rest. The decision to enter this town had been a mistake; it was not possible to deny that. At least none of the townsfolk had witnessed him using the small amount of power necessary to keep track of the Company and hunt for Frodo. Perhaps talk of the unfortunate rash of fires would cause people to forget about the strangers who had passed through their town so briefly. He sighed regretfully. No … it was more likely they would be blamed for the fires even more as the story grew in the telling. From here on, the Company would enter no more towns. If supplies must be had, he would send in Aragorn and Boromir to purchase what they needed…
The fact that none of the townsfolk had yet identified him as a wizard reminded Gandalf of the warped life-spark he had sensed while searching for the Ring-bearer. His mind returned to that smoldering spark now, puzzling over the hints of its forbearers he had glimpsed in it; orc and human, snake and beast, and what else he knew not. It was a thing that never should have been brought into being, should never have lived, and Gandalf shuddered, wondering where it was now –
The creature whirled at the unexpected movement of the door swinging wide. The wizard stared into the dark room and saw only the white of Frodo’s borrowed nightshirt reflecting the light from the main room against a devouring blackness. Gandalf had less than a heartbeat to register the sight of Frodo’s wide terrified eyes, a gag in his mouth, before the thing was gone with the hobbit through the open window and into the night, leaving behind it shadows and darkness and the stink of absolute evil.
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.