18. Explanations and Expeditions
Sam closed the door upon his master’s departing cousins and briefly rested his forehead against the cool wood. While he hadn’t dared hope that he would escape completely, Samwise had felt no pressing urge to confess his part in The Wager. He certainly wasn’t going to volunteer the information that his innocent comment had started the whole mess.
Sam turned around and smiled cheerfully at his master. “Aye, sir?”
Those blue eyes were burning into him from his master’s pale face. Frodo lay back at his ease among the pillows but his arms were folded and his face set. “Sam, what did Merry mean?”
“When, sir?” If he couldn’t avoid the inevitable, maybe he could delay it until they were interrupted … or the world ended…
“Just now, Sam. Just before my cousins felt the need to leave so quickly. What was Merry talking about?”
“’Bout what, sir?”
“Sam, I am asking you that.”
“Oh.” Where were all those people who kept coming to the door to ask after Mr. Frodo? Why didn’t one of them turn up now?
He knew that tone, for all that Samwise very rarely heard it from his gentle and patient master. Grey eyes closed then opened slowly. There was no help for it. “It’s like this, Mr. Frodo … well, Mr. Merry an’ Mr. Pippin were saying – ah,” Sam knew Frodo wouldn’t like Sam’s pessimistic impression of his master’s returning strength, “ah…”
Definite warning in that single word. “Ah, anyway,” Sam hurried on, “I said … and then Mr. Merry said – ah…” Never good with words, the poor hobbit could find no explanation to express how things had simply gotten out of hand, and one thing had piled up on another, and he’d never meant them to, and he’d tried to extricate himself from the muddle…
The loud knock on the door caused them both to jump and broke the staring contest. Frodo’s dark brows drew down but Sam was already moving.
“Gandalf, sir! Come right in, sir! So happy ‘ta see you, sir! Is there anything I can get you, sir?!” The startled wizard was practically dragged into the Ring-bearer’s room, Sam all but tugging on his robes to hurry him along. Once in, Gandalf’s deep eyes moved from his friend’s determined expression to the florid face of his servant and smiled internally. ‘Ah, poor Sam is ‘catching it hot,’ to use his own phrase,’ thought the wizard.
Struggling to contain his amusement, Gandalf seated himself in the chair Sam pulled up next to the bed and leaned his staff against Frodo’s headboard. Frodo looked between the wizard and Sam, torn between demanding his explanation and greeting his guest. Good manners and a gentlehobbit’s upbringing won out. Frodo turned to Gandalf and seconded Sam’s offer of refreshment, his pale face blossoming into a smile as he relaxed. As he hurried to arrange the tea and add some small sweetcakes to a tray, Sam took a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow and send up his thanks to Elbereth for the rescue.
* * * * *
Much of that first day of making reparations was a blur to Merry and Pippin. Their backs ached and their legs ached and their arms ached worse. Merry had taken a small burn on his arm that morning when he brushed up against a hot griddle in the kitchens and it stung abominably. Their hands cramped from gripping the scrub brushes and the skin on their fingers and hands wrinkled up from the lye in the strong soap they used in scrubbing the fountains. The two had taken a quick bath then eaten ravenously at luncheon, finishing quickly so that they might spend some time with Frodo. That visit had been cut short by Merry’s offhand remark about Sam’s participation in The Wager. Knowing when to retreat, they had abandoned Sam and fled.
Vowing to make it up to Sam (somehow), Merry and Pippin changed their clothes (again) and reported for kitchen-duty.
The two small figures were becoming quite familiar to the kitchen staff and more than one tall Elf smiled to see the small curly heads bent so industriously to the tasks assigned them. The afternoon had passed into early evening when Aragorn sought them out. The two were helping knead bread and were liberally covered with flour, the fine white dust hanging in the warm fusty air. Both had aprons tied up under their arms, which hung to the tops of their hairy feet. The cross-cultural education had been mutual, Aragorn saw, as he surveyed the racks of raising breadstuffs. Sprinkled among the racks of elegantly shaped rolls and braided breads were several small dough figurines that had been sculpted into fat-bellied bears and turtles and even a small rabbit that sat upright and had tiny thin breadsticks for whiskers.
Pippin looked up at him, his whole small face grinning in delight through his obvious tiredness. Somehow the youngster had managed to immerse himself more deeply in the dough preparation than his cousin. While Meriadoc had tried to keep himself neat, Pippin hadn’t bothered. His bronze curls were thickly powdered with white and smudges of flour covered his face, arms and almost every inch of skin.
With the head cook’s nod of permission, the Ranger escorted the two outside and stood upwind while they tried to dust themselves off. When as much flour and sugar had been removed as was possible without yet another bath, Aragorn motioned them towards a bench.
“In two days, I must leave for the northern tree harbors with Elladan and Elrohir,” he began. Merry winced, remembering that his plan to give Aragorn and Arwen a day together had failed spectacularly.The Ranger noted the grimace. He did not hold it against the halfling; he had held out little hope that he would be excused from this duty. The Ranger’s superb skills would be needed to seek for any sign of the Enemy and Aragorn knew without false pride that he was the finest tracker in Imladris. A mission of this importance could not be entrusted to one of lesser skill. Yet important as it was, it could serve a second purpose. “Would you like to come?”
For a moment, the two young hobbits did not think they had heard him correctly. Then their faces lit up like one of Gandalf’s firecrackers and he was nearly bowled off the bench by their exuberant hugs. “Would we? Would we!”
Laughing, the Ranger instructed the two to be ready at first light, two days hence. They would ride one of the great elven horses. Seeing their looks of apprehension, Aragorn assured them that the stable master had recommended an older mare, smaller than most, who would bear them carefully.
“Couldn’t we ride Bill, instead?” asked Pippin, plainly not reassured of the mare’s gentleness.
Aragorn shook his head. “I am sorry, Pippin, but Bill could not possibly keep up with us. He is a fine pack-pony but we will be traveling swiftly. Do not worry; the mare is very sweet-natured. She will not allow you to come to harm.”
Pippin nodded. Beside him, he thought that Merry also looked somewhat nervous, which eased his own fears. Merry also had a concern. “And this is acceptable to Lord Elrond?”
The Ranger smiled. “My foster-father has given his permission.” He did not add that upon being asked, Elrond had heaved a most uncharacteristic sigh of relief and said, “Yes, please take them.” Evidently young Peregrin had earlier that day created an amazingly life-like dough sculpture of a certain body part … which had, through a quite innocent mistake, been included on a covered tray for one of the high-born ladies of the human delegation. The resulting furor had sorely tried the Elf-lord’s patience.
When the mistake had been traced back to the frantic tweenager (who with the assistance of his cousin had been hunting desperately through the baking racks for his sculpture), Pippin had been unceremoniously hauled before the lady to apologize. This the young hobbit did with such grace and obvious contrition that the lady (an elderly and rather staid matron) had forgiven him and Elrond was able to smooth over the incident. Imladris, he had reflected to Aragorn, could use a few days of respite from those two.
“This will not be a hobbit camping-party,” Aragorn warned them. “We seek sign of the Enemy. Rumors have reached us of companies of orcs and men gathering and passing through the area in great numbers. We will be riding hard and swift, which you are not accustomed to. And,” he continued upon seeing the slight frown on Meriadoc’s features which meant the young hobbit was thinking, “you two will be expected to carry your own weight. You will attend to the fires and do the cooking as well as the clean-up. And you will continue your reparations for my lord Elrond upon our return.”
Two curly heads nodded eagerly, and with a few more instructions and admonitions from the Ranger, set off to the bathhouses to clean themselves up for dinner. Aragorn’s sharp eyes followed them and he mentally listed the lessons he wished these young ones to learn on this little expedition. Rising, he brushed his hands along the dark green suede of his embroidered surcoat and discovered that one of them had filled his pockets with sticky unbaked dough.
* * * * *
“Frodo, I want you to tell me about your nightmares.”
The Ring-bearer’s smile faded as the wizard’s words sank in. The tea had been finished and only crumbs remained of the sweetcakes. Gandalf had eaten only one of the cakes, urging the others on Frodo without the hobbit being aware of it. The wizard had waited until his friend was relaxed and slightly sleepy, then made his gentle demand.
Frodo tried to laugh off the wizard’s request. “Really, Gandalf, they’re just nightmares. Just dreams…”
Gandalf leaned forward and captured one of the hobbit’s small hands in his. “Frodo,” was all he said.
The hobbit’s eyes suddenly shimmered with tears and he tried to pull away. “I don’t want to talk about them,” he whispered softly.
“I understand that it pains you, my friend. Would you rather speak with Bilbo?” The hobbit shook his dark head quickly, eyes downcast. “Frodo … you have confided in me in the past. You know I will respect and guard your confidences.”
“I know, Gandalf. I know. But these dreams … they’re different.”
“How are they different?”
Sam had been about to clear away the teacups and dishes, but upon hearing this turn of conversation he halted and busied himself in quietly refilling the water pitcher. His Gaffer always said that the mark of a good servant was ‘seein’ things got done without being neither seen nor heard,’ and Sam’s long years of familiarity with his master had taught him how to move around Frodo without Frodo really being aware of him. Gandalf’s deep eyes drifted to him and the wizard made an almost unnoticeable motion for him to stay. Sam nodded slightly in return, knowing that his master would need his silent, unconscious support.
Frodo rubbed his nightshirt sleeve across his eyes, avoiding the painful bruising, still staring at nothing. “They change,” he murmured softly, his voice detached and remote. Sam knew that his master was trying to distance himself from the pain; he’d seen Frodo do it before. Gandalf had too, he knew, and saw the wizard lean forward and capture Frodo’s free hand, so that both were sheltered in his larger grip.
“How?” Gandalf persisted gently.
Frodo closed his eyes. “Sometimes it is dark. Not night, I think … just dark. They’re coming for me. They can see me, now. They are so tall … huge. Their black robes reach up into the sky. I can’t move. There is no place to run to, anyway. No place that they cannot find me.” Silence. Gandalf said nothing, only continued to rub the small hands, which had gone so cold.
With an effort, Frodo continued. “I feel the Morgul-knife enter my shoulder … feel the tip break off. That’s silly, of course – I didn’t feel it snap inside of me. But in the dream, I feel that the tip takes on a life … an intelligence … of its own, and feel it seek my heart.” The shadowed eyes raised and Sam was hard-pressed not to make a sound at the terror and pain he saw in them. “I know it’s gone now … that Elrond cut it out. But I swear I think it is still there, inching its way slowly through my body.
“That’s not the worst of it, though.” Gandalf made a soft, non-committal sound, sharp eyes on Frodo’s averted face. “Sometimes I feel like it is … listening. Seeking. Looking for me.”
Gandalf released Frodo’s hands to reach up and gently stroke the pale face. Perspiration had broken out on his brow and Sam silently handed his master a cloth he had wet in the pitcher. Frodo’s “Thank you, Sam,” was automatic and entirely unaware of the words as he wiped his face with it.
“You know what it is you feel listening, don’t you?” asked the wizard.
“Yes,” Frodo replied softly. “It’s the Ring.”
* TBC *
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.