6. Chapter Six
“Nothing,” replied the Ranger. Aragorn straightened, rubbing the small of his back. Gandalf may have named him “greatest swordsman and hunter of this age of Middle-earth,” he mused, but not even Elendil himself could have made sense of the churned mud and earth that now surrounded the still smoldering remains of the inn.
The bucket brigade had not been concerned with preserving the ground, only with drowning the raging fire before it spread to the other wooden buildings of the little town. They had been successful, only the inn and its attached stables had gone up. But the result was this morass under their feet, shifting earth sloshing with puddles of water and the track of many, many human boots. People continued to track through the mess, turning over smoking piles of wood, putting out spot fires that flared here and there. Some of the barrels from the taproom had been saved, but others had gone up in spectacular explosions of froth and flame.
“The earth will not speak, Aragorn,” the Elf growled. Legolas looked up, his clear eyes catching and reflecting the starlight. “We must seek another method of tracking Frodo.”
“If eyes will not serve, then perhaps mind might,” the Ranger replied after a moment. Seeing the Elf’s blank look, he smiled. “Put yourself in your quarry’s place, I was taught. How would I flee, carrying a burden and running ahead of the hounds?”
“How do you know Frodo was being carried?”
“We saw the dark figure on the windowsill, did we not?” Legolas nodded, his gaze clouded. “Its arms were empty then, so it must have already taken Frodo and returned for some reason. I would think to search the rooms. Frodo would not be taken unless he could not prevent it – so he must have been knocked unconscious and possibly bound. He was most likely lying on the roof, out of our sight. We saw his kidnapper as it was exiting Frodo’s room, not entering it.”
“Ah,” the Elf murmured softly.
“Be that the case,” Aragorn continued, “we have been about this wrong. Even townsfolk rushing towards a burning inn would not ignore someone carrying what appears to be an unconscious child. They would want to know if the little one was hurt, if there was anything they could do to help...”
“So it is not muddied tracks we seek,” completed the Elf, “but the memories of Men.” Legolas pulled Aragorn’s borrowed cloak more tightly about him in a vain attempt to hide his fair features. People still mingled around the scene of the destruction, pointing and shaking their heads. The two exchanged a glance and each chose a gawker to speak with.
* * * * *
The remainder of the Fellowship walked in silence, surrounded by the local guardsman. Gandalf walked to the fore with the hobbits between him and Gimli and Boromir. Most of the guards followed after the two warriors, their swords drawn but down. At one point they were forced to stop to wait for a night-grocer’s wagon to rumble past, and the wizard was not surprised to feel a small hand tug at his robes. He looked down into three anxious faces, strained and white in the gloom.
“Gandalf, they aren’t watching us like they are you Big Folk.” Merry’s voice was soft, pitched low to carry to the wizard’s ears alone. “And the guards are burdened carrying our swords and packs and things. We could be gone before they knew it.”
Gandalf nodded, torn between the thought of unsupervised hobbits in a town of Men and having more of the Company at large. His gnarled hands tightened momentarily on Sam’s and Pippin’s shoulders, then he removed them. “Go,” he whispered.
The driver of the great wagon called out a question to the guardsmen and several of them answered, waving the man on. It took several moments for them to realize that when their prisoners started moving again, they were three short.
“Now what?” Pippin asked, trying to control his gasping breath. Sam bent double and fought to stifle a cough. Their short but swift dash on silent hobbit-feet had been hidden by the darkness and distraction of the guards. Only Gandalf had seen them go, his sharp eyes following the small forms as they reached the shelter of an outbuilding and hid there.
“We follow,” whispered Merry. “We need to know where the guardsmen are taking them.”
Upon discovering their absence, the captain had halted his men and loudly demanded to know what had become of the little folk. Gimli and Boromir genuinely did not know (but could well guess) and Gandalf unashamedly cried ignorance. “It wasn’t my place to watch them,” said the wizard haughtily, “but yours. Do not blame us if your men are inattentive.”
The captain had been furious, but quietly furious, with the constrained anger that spoke of leashed violence. His men had performed a quick search of the surrounding area but it had been no great effort for the hobbits to avoid the great, blundering men. Sam and Merry and Pippin had watched as the captain harshly ordered his men back into line, grinding his teeth all the while. With an effort, he visibly relaxed. So the little ones were gone. What harm could such small folk do?
The hobbits ghosted after the others on silent feet. They watched as Gandalf and the others were taken inside and locked in a stout cell, walled on one side by iron bars. Gandalf went immediately to the single small window, also barred, and stared out into the night. He nodded at the three pairs of watching eyes, then smiled at them and turned around to help Gimli and Boromir sort though their belongings, everything being returned to them with the exception of their weapons.
“An honest constabulary,” commented Gimli, unfolding several of the Company’s blankets.
“I suspect that is the doing of the captain,” Gandalf remarked softly. “I heard the speech of Gondor on his tongue, Boromir. Educated and noble-born, I think. Though what an officer of the Tower of the Guard would be doing in this nameless place, I cannot imagine. Do you know him, Boromir?”
“Not personally, no,” replied Boromir after a small hesitation. “But there has been more than one desertion in the last years … men running when they could no longer bear the … despair of Minas Tirith.”
“If this is such a one,” replied Gandalf, “then perhaps he will remember his duty to his lord’s son.”
“Gandalf,” returned Boromir softly, “if he is a deserter of my father’s guard, then he would not wish us to carry tales of his whereabouts back to Gondor. It would be to his advantage if we never left this place.”
* * * * *
The hobbits found a quiet refuge in a root cellar not far from the stockade. The low ceiling and barrels and stacked bags of food comforted them. It had been locked, of course, but then Samwise had demonstrated an unexpected talent. “Don’t you tell Mr. Frodo, now,” he had implored the others as his strong, nimble fingers worked at the lock. When it had clicked free, he had looked embarrassed but also proud. “I don’t think he would approve … so best he don’t know.”
“He won’t hear it from us, Sam,” Merry assured him, pushing Pip ahead of him down the three wooden stairs. Sam laid the clasp against the lock and quietly pulled shut the door; it would appear locked and undisturbed at a casual glance.
It was not completely dark inside as the moon and stars shone faintly through the cracks and knotholes of the wooden boards about them. They collapsed to the floor and rested, tucking their cloaks about them for warmth.
“We’ve got to get some money,” mused Merry, when they had somewhat recovered themselves. “I gave my purse and Frodo’s to Gandalf, but Pip still has a few coins.”
An inspection of the tweenager’s purse revealed fourteen copper coins, no silver and not a hint of gold. “I shouldn’t have spent it all in the market,” groaned Pippin.
“Well, we’ve got to have money,” Merry repeated, drawing up his knees and tucking his chin on them. “In addition to our needs, we might be able to make bail for the others. And we need to pay for the inn. Ah … Sam –“
“No, Mr. Merry. I’ll not be opening any more locks. We can just all starve first.”
Merry scowled at him but only half-heartedly. “All right, all right… How can we get some money? And still stay out of sight of the guardsmen? They’ll be looking for us, you know.”
“I know.” Sam was silent. “What if we go ‘ta them and explain that somebody took Mr. Frodo? They’d be helping us, then, wouldn’t they?”
“I think they would have been more willing to help if we hadn’t burned down the inn, Sam.”
“Good point, that.”
Pippin had gone to sleep leaning against a sack of meal. Merry pulled several empty flour sacks over him and he and Sam moved to the other side of the tiny room to talk in hushed tones. They did not sleep until much, much later.
The hobbits had been too exhausted not to sleep well, despite their worry over Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship. Breakfast was provided by their unknown host; jars of peaches and plums, a bag of nuts and a small barrel of ale. Pippin dug into his pockets and pulled out the apples and pieces of the sweet molasses candy he had purchased for Frodo, handing them out. The hobbits leaned back against the crates and barrels, content for the moment. Dust lay thickly on the glass jars and Sam regarded them thoughtfully. “I don’t think anyone comes down here, much,” he commented. “It’s storage and just that.” He cracked open another walnut and picked out the halves carefully.
“All the better,” replied Merry, struggling to open a jar of peaches.
“I’ve an idea how to make some money, Merry,” ventured Pippin. The tweenager had recovered his appetite and practically wolfed down his share of the sweet, sticky fruit. Then he had again counted the coins in his purse and sat staring at them for some time, sliding them back and forth across the dusty wooden floorboards with a dirty index finger.
“I’m open to suggestions, Pip. What is it?”
Pippin reached over and retrieved several of the walnut shells Sam had tossed away. He balanced them in his hand a moment, then smiled.
“Oh no,” murmured Sam.
* * * * *
A cloak spread over a small barrel served well enough for a table. Keeping a careful eye out for guardsmen, Sam lounged against a convenient wall, arms folded across his chest, eyes darting nervously. Merry climbed atop a crate and started motioning passers-by over. Some of the townsfolk had met the hobbits in the market the previous evening and remembered the friendly little folk. None, at least, connected them with the burning of the inn.
“Find the lady!” Merry called to the curious townsfolk. “Come over here, sir – wouldn’t you enjoy a game of chance? It’s simple, Mistress, all you need to do is guess the right one. You either win or you don’t. You win and we double your coins. Find the lady, sir?”
Pippin laid out his tools, his small, quick hands darting over the table. When enough people had collected, he began to sing,
“A little fun, just now and then
is relished by the best of Men.
If you have nerve, you may have plenty;
Five draws you ten and ten draws twenty.
Attention giv’n, I’ll show to you,
How umbrellas hide the peek-a-boo.
Select your shell, the one you choose;
If right, you win, if not, you lose.
The game itself is lots of fun,
Your chances though, are two to one;
And I tell you that your chance is slim
To win a prize from Peregrin!”*
On the cloak were spread three half walnut shells, arrayed in a line. As the collected people watched, Pippin held up a dried pea (taken from a sack in the root cellar) and dramatically slid it underneath one of the half-shells. Then his quick hands were moving over the cloak, sliding the shells across and between each other in dizzying patterns.
At last the quick hands slowed and came to a stop. Pippin bestowed the townsfolk a brilliant smile, his green-gold eyes dancing. “Now,” asked Merry, “who’ll be first?”
* Pippin’s little ditty is loosely adapted from the infamous shell man Jim Miner’s barker-song. Also known as Umbrella Jim, Jim Miner plied his questionable trade throughout frontier America in the 1800s. “Umbrella” refers to the half walnut-shells. “The lady,” of course, is the pea.
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.