48. Caught in the Trap
He tried to gather his arms under him and push himself up, but the agony that tore through him at the attempt ripped a cry from his throat and left him shuddering and nauseated and he fell back to the ground. Instead of the words of comfort he had meant to offer, all that emerged from his mouth was an inarticulate, “Aaghhuuah…”
The choking sobs redoubled in volume and vaguely, he felt small arms tighten about his head. “Pippin!” ordered a familiar voice, “move over! Let him get some air. He isn’t dead. No need to carry on so.”
Something brushed his hair, then a small hand was patting his face. “Aragorn? Aragorn, are you awake?”
Wishing that such was not the case, the Ranger whispered, “Unfortunately … yes.”
“I told you he wouldn’t die that easily,” said the familiar voice, which the man hazily identified as Meriadoc. As he was still not yet able to focus his thoughts, he thought he should make sure.
“Yes. We are all here, Aragorn.”
Something had been wrong. Ah, he had it. “Frodo?”
“Yes, Aragorn,” came another voice, and the Ranger felt a dampened cloth wipe the cold perspiration from his face. There was a rock pressing into his chest and another, sharper rock felt like it had been driven into his back. It seemed a great effort to lift his head. He tried to look toward the new voice and a gentle hand pressed him back down. “I am here also. Thanks to you, and to the others.” Someone moved into his field of vision. He struggled to focus but could see the Ring-bearer only as a shadowy form outlined by the light of the stars. Faint flickers of light danced across Frodo’s worried face and belatedly, Aragorn realized that someone must have made a fire somewhere behind him. That would be Sam, then...
Ah, good. All of his hobbits were accounted for. He could relax now. Faintly he heard their voices discussing him; Frodo thanking Sam for putting on a pot of water to heat, Pippin asking if they shouldn’t remove his boots and loosen his clothing to make him more comfortable. Then he remembered something else. The reason he was lying here. “The men?”
Frodo came back into his line of sight, and Aragorn realized he was lying on his stomach, his head turned rather uncomfortably to the side. His wits seemed to be slow in returning. Displaced from cradling Aragorn’s head by Merry, Pippin had immediately found another spot and now curled against his side, pressing himself close. Even as he registered that, a gentle hand reached up to pat his cheek and carefully push the hair out of his eyes.
“We’ve taken care of them,” Frodo assured him. “Or rather Sam and Merry and Pippin did. They are all tied up most securely. Two are still unconscious. You have not been out long.”
Aragorn nodded then squinted at Frodo. It seemed most odd to him to be looking up at the hobbit. A thought rambled across his mind and he wondered how it would be to always have to look up at larger folk, as the hobbits must. “Were any of you hurt? And are you all right, Frodo?”
“We are all fine. My head is sore, but that’s all.” The hobbit raised a hand to his head and Aragorn noted it trembled slightly. “We are more concerned about you.”
Aragorn reluctantly took stock of himself. Except for the sharp stab every time he breathed, he did not seem as damaged as he thought he should be with a crossbow quarrel through him. He should be feeling a lot more pain. Shouldn’t he?
“Can you sit up?” asked Frodo. “Do you wish a drink of water?”
“I shouldn’t put any weight on the wound until it is treated,” replied Aragorn. “How bad is it?”
Frodo looked over his head at someone. Since Pippin was cuddled against him regarding him anxiously and Merry still crouched by his head stroking his hair, it must be Sam. “Is the water ready yet?” Frodo asked.
“Comin’, sir,” responded Sam’s voice.
Frodo returned his attention to the man. “It is going to be a very bad bruise, Aragorn. The bolt misfired when Sam and Merry took the Man down, causing it to jump the cradle. It struck the flat of one of your ribs and might have cracked it. Not broken it – I would be able to feel that. Can you inhale without too much pain?”
Aragorn’s ears had stopped feeding Frodo’s words to his brain at the word ‘misfired.’ “You mean I am not shot?”
“You are shot,” Merry confirmed, shifting sideways so that he could speak face-to-face with the prone Ranger. “You just aren’t exactly wounded.”
“Oh,” said Aragorn blankly. “Good.”
Merry lowered himself until he was half-reclining, looking full into the Man’s face. “Aragorn,” he said softly. “I am sorry.”
Aragorn could not make sense of the hobbit’s words, though Merry’s sincerity was unmistakable. And had Merry been weeping as well as Pippin? “For what, Merry?”
“We meant to pull the Man down before he could fire,” Merry replied softly. “We failed, and you were hurt. I’m sorry.”
Aragorn shifted experimentally and was rewarded with a sharp stab in his back that stole his breath. He panted for a moment, then replied. “If I had been killed, Merry, I would be a great deal more put out. However – as I was not – I thank you and Samwise for my rescue.” After a moment, Merry grinned back, though a trifle uncertainly.
“Can you sit up?” asked Merry. “We still need to wash and bind the bruise. Sam has hot water ready. I said we should just cut off your clothes, but Frodo said we should ask you first...” Merry rambled on comfortingly, not requiring a response. Several pairs of small hands guided him gently up and against one of the trees edging the clearing. Still somewhat in shock that he was not dead, Aragorn listed to the side and immediately found a small warm body propping him up. Pippin grinned up at him, still sniffling, but with such relief on his sharp face that the Ranger returned his smile full measure. He slid an arm around the tweenager and was gratified to feel Pippin hug him carefully back and nuzzle into his neck, face still wet with tears.
He took a deep breath and grimaced at the sharp stab in his upper torso. It felt much like being kicked in the back by a horse. Painful, but not unbearable. “I can breathe,” he said, belatedly replying to Frodo’s question. Frodo nodded. Then he and Sam were carefully guiding the bow up and over his head, and removing his quiver to lay them aside. Frodo seated himself behind the Ranger, asking him to lean forward while he and Sam eased off his leather coat and tunic, but directed Merry to simply push up his shirt in an effort to keep him warm in the crisp night air. Aragorn smiled at the hobbit’s unnecessary concern; he did not feel cold.
Frodo gently bathed the bruise while Merry held the shirt away and Sam insisted that the Ranger take small sips of water. Pippin remained glued to Aragorn’s side, supporting and warming him much as the youngster had done for Frodo after Weathertop. Aragorn was touched to his very soul. Not just by Pippin’s tender care, but by the gentle ministrations of all four hobbits. He found his eyes were damp, but not with tears of pain … far from it.
Aragorn relaxed as they worked, his mind drifting as the pain receded. It felt strange to him, alien, to be tended with such gentleness. Rangers cared for each other, of course, but their care was more … reserved. One did not insult a warrior’s dignity with murmured soothing words of nonsensical reassurance such as his companions whispered to him now. He had known much affection fostered with his elven kin. But the affection shown him there was more dignified, more … distant than the love presently being lavished upon him. Never before had he experienced such heartfelt encouragement and comfort as these four small folk bestowed on him. Their unquestioning acceptance and inclusion of him in their tightly knit familial group was a gift beyond any he had known. Faint memories of being rocked in his mother’s arms as a tiny child stirred in him, a consolation not experienced since. Certainly none of his kin would think to stroke his hair or rub his shoulders, of pressing against him as if he were another (albeit very large) hobbit in need of reassurance and comfort.
His mind returned to the others’ care of Frodo after Weathertop – the hobbit had never been left alone. The others were always nearby, one or more small warm body always touching him. Aragorn had seen with his own eyes how much that support had strengthened Frodo as he battled the agony and creeping darkness of his wound to hold to life. That he was being offered the same unrestrained devotion now affected Aragorn deeply. Hobbits were different from men; he had known that intellectually and from his travels with these small folk. But how different were the easily said words from actually experiencing being cared for as they would succor one of their own.
Frodo laid his hand gently against the swelling skin, noting that it already exceeded the span of his spread fingers. When the washing was done, he sat back on his heels and regarded the injury doubtfully. The stars, even supported by the faint light of the fire, did not illuminate the bruise as more than a darkening of the skin but he could see that it was already coloring. “Should we bind it?” he asked Aragorn. “It would provide some cushioning, at least.”
Aragorn shifted, testing the soreness. “No, let it be. It will heal. I may ask one of you to carry my pack for a day or so, though.”
Frodo rose and helped Merry tug the Ranger’s clothing into place. Sam knelt behind Aragorn, supporting the man’s weight while Merry and Frodo guided his arms back into his tunic, then eased him into his long leather coat. Pippin did not offer to move, only adjusting his position so that the others could work around him.
Now comfortably ensconced in a nest of blankets, Aragorn watched as Frodo rather shakily sat down. The Ranger was concerned anew to see the hobbit rubbing his forehead. “Frodo, let me examine your head. You were unconscious for a worrisome amount of time.”
Frodo shook his head, his pale face momentarily tightening at the movement. “It only aches, Aragorn. Truly. Sam, is there enough of that hot water left for tea?”
“Aye,” replied Sam. “I’ll make some. It will be ready right after Strider looks at your head.” Merry hid a smile at Frodo’s martyred sigh.
Defeated, Frodo knelt again, this time before the Ranger and bowed his head, allowing Aragorn to run his hands through the thick curls. He flinched slightly when the man’s hands encountered a sticky patch behind his left ear.
“There is a small amount of blood here, Frodo,” Aragorn said slowly, sensitive fingers outlining the sizable lump under the skin of the scalp. It stretched from the top of the delicately pointed ear to the lobe.
Frodo twitched uncomfortably. “He was hiding behind the trees and caught me as I walked past. It was my fault – I was not paying attention. All I remember is a dark shape lunging at me. Picking me up... I kicked it and tried to draw my sword. Then he must have hit me, for I remember nothing more.”
Aragorn pressed harder, searching for roughness or a depression of the skull but found none. “You are going to be quite sore on the morrow.” He released the curly head and sighed. “We both are.”
Pippin had remained quiet during Aragorn’s treatment and Frodo’s examination, a sure sign of how unsettled he was. Still cocooned warmly under the Ranger’s arm, the tweenager looked up into the Man’s face then over at his cousin. “What are we going to do with those Men?”
That question had not been far from any of their minds. Sam silently ladled tea into each of their mugs, then with a flourish, opened a small sack and dropped into each a somewhat grimy lump of sugar (indulgently dropping a second lump into Pippin’s mug when he thought the others weren’t looking). That done, Sam pulled out two blankets from his pack and covered his master then added the second to the mound over the Ranger. Both thanked him with a smile, knowing to protest was useless. Hands wrapped around his mug, the stocky hobbit sat down with the others and looked at Aragorn.
“They are tied, you said,” said Aragorn slowly, seeking to order his thoughts.
“Yes,” Merry responded. “Each of them carried rope. Meant for us, I assume.”
“You heard what the leader told me?” asked Aragorn, and received a nod each from Merry and Pippin and Sam.
He looked to Frodo and received a pensive nod. “They told me.”
Aragorn sighed. “The most expedient course -”
“No,” said Frodo.
“Frodo,” Aragorn argued, “if we leave them alive, what is to prevent them from keeping watch on us and returning another time, perhaps in greater numbers? Or marking our passage as we leave Rivendell? A quick death is more merciful than what you would have experienced, did they deliver you into Saruman’s hands.”
Even the dim light of the coldly shining stars and the dying firelight was sufficient for them all to see the blood drain from the Ring-bearer’s face. Aragorn pressed his advantage. “And what of your cousins and Sam? How long do you think they would live, after the wizard found out you were the one he wanted? Not long, though it would seem far too long nevertheless.” He hugged Pippin to him a little tighter. “To you as well, for you would be forced to watch. I have heard of the games Saruman has taken to playing in the pits of Isengard. You do not want to hear of what he does to captives, Frodo.” Frodo shuddered, his averted face lost in the darkness. The other hobbits looked at each other fearfully. Finally Sam broke the silence.
“They must have horses hereabouts, if they meant ‘ta carry us to Isengard. If I know anything about horse-kind, they’ll be barn-sour by now. We could -”
“Barn-sour?” interrupted Aragorn, unfamiliar with the term.
“It means they’ll be wanting to return to their nice, comfortable stable,” explained Merry. “Any horse or pony has a wide streak of lazy. My family has bred riding ponies for generations, and I’ve yet to meet one that wouldn’t prefer its warm barn to a day of work.” He paused, and said with a smile in his voice, “Sam, are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”
“I think I am, Mr. Merry.”
Merry’s grin widened. “And here I didn’t think you had a mean bone in your body.”
“Would you two mind letting the rest of us in on your little idea?” requested Frodo with some exasperation.
“Oh!” giggled Pippin suddenly. “That’s wicked, Sam! Good for you!”
“Apparently, Frodo,” mused Aragorn, “you and I are the only ones here with some inherent moral decency. Do you have any idea what they are talking about?”
“Unfortunately, now that I think about it … perhaps I do,” confessed Frodo. “Sam, I’m surprised at you. Do you think it will work?”
“It should,” Sam replied. “All we have to do is find the horses. And Strider will have ‘ta help us lift them.”
“Oh,” groaned the Ranger, suddenly understanding. “Tied to a horse until they reach Orthanc? That is cruel.”
“Not until they reach the tower,” Merry said hastily. “We’ll tie them with slipknots and the horses can buck them off after, oh … three or four days.”
“Horses and ponies are right smart,” offered Sam. “If they get tired of a rider, they knock him off by running under a tree. Or rubbing him against a boulder. O’ course, if the riders are tied on, well … it might take them several tries … after they’ve bucked them for a day or two.”
The Ranger gazed at them with mixed horror and admiration. “Remind me,” he said, “never, never to get you four angry with me.”
* * * * *
It did not take much searching the find the horses. While Aragorn and Frodo and Sam dragged the bound men into the clearing, Merry and Pippin followed their ears (and their noses) to locate the motley assortment of rough-coated, ill-tempered equines. The cousins led the balking, shying horses one at a time back to their impromptu campsite, the animals fighting the lead-reins all the way. The young hobbits were more than relieved to stake each cantankerous beast near to where the bound Men lay glowering in the grass.
Aragorn and Frodo and Sam had a nasty shock when they went last to the place where Merry and Sam had taken down the leader. The man was gone. Frayed rope littered the ground, traces of blood on the rough strands. A substantial blood-trail led off into the deeper woods, and here and there, they could all see where the man’s torn wrists had left smudges of glistening darkness on leaves as he passed.
“Look at this,” Aragorn said, holding up the razored head of the bolt that had gone awry. “He pushed himself over to it and used it to sever his bonds. There is blood on it; he cut himself in the freeing.”
“Good!” said Sam, “Between that and what damage Mr. Merry and I did, I just hope he bleeds ‘ta death.” He ignored the appalled look that his master gave him and went cautiously over to one of the horses, which slanted its overlarge ears back at him and bared its teeth. “I was planning on savin’ the meanest brute for him. Off you go, then. If you see that Man, you just give him a good bite for me.” He kicked up the stake-rope and slapped the animal’s withers, leaping quickly out of the bolting mount’s way.
Aragorn needed all of the hobbits and the aid of a sturdy tree to get the bound, gagged men up on the remaining hacks. The men struggled and swore and kicked, and Aragorn left off any attempt to be gentle with them. Fearing that one of the halflings might be injured, he tied a loop of rope around each man’s chest under his arms, then tossed the other end up to dangle over a convenient limb. He and the hobbits thus hoisted the men onto their mounts, the men leaving behind much skin in the process.
One had loosened his gag enough to heap abuse upon his captors, evidently not appreciating the turn-about. After enduring several repetitions and variations of, “You’ll be sorry when Saruman hears of this,” Aragorn decided to put the man’s verbosity to good use. He pulled the gag off completely and stared into the man’s bloodshot eyes.
“Are there any more of your sort watching the roads?” the Ranger asked in the softest of voices. The man grew quiet and Aragorn’s face hardened. “Did you chance upon us, or did you have notice that we would come by the South Road?” The man’s eyes darted from side to side but there was no escape from the cold-eyed Ranger before him.
“It would be wise to answer,” suggested Aragorn softly.
The man gulped, panic blooming on his face. “Or what?” he demanded, the bravado rather spoiled by the fear in his voice.
The Ranger considered that. What he might do to extract the desired information was limited by four sets of apprehensive eyes. Rescue came from an unexpected source.
“I’d be right willing to hit him with my frying pan,” volunteered Sam, oblivious to the gasps from Merry and Pippin and one strangled, “Sam! ” from Frodo.
Aragorn’s mouth twitched in spite of the seriousness of the offer. Sam’s hitherto-unexpected ferocity might come in useful, but whether the man answered or not was actually unimportant. If all of the roads out of Rivendell had not been watched before, they would be now.
The horses did not appreciate the novel method of having their riders mount and managed to get in several good bites, all fortunately inflicted upon the struggling men. A second man managed to work his gag loose and treated his captors to a steady diatribe of curses and foul-mouthed imprecations, his repertoire really quite impressive. Pippin listened with wide eyes and great interest until he fell under his older cousins’ disapproving gaze. Seeing Frodo staring at him narrowly, Pippin flushed and became very busy folding blankets and stowing their gear in their packs and putting out the fire. But his pointed ears remained tilted back until Merry walked over to him and purposefully laid his hands over the curious ears. “Inventive, isn’t he,” Merry remarked to his elder cousin. “Odd - they don’t look flexible enough to … perform all those … activities. Men must be more … umm - limber than I knew.”
The man that Sam had walloped with his fry pan was still out and Aragorn peeled back an eyelid to peer at the rolled-back orb. What he saw evidently reassured him, for he tightened the rope around the man’s wrists and to the saddle’s pommel. The horse tried to kick him as he backed away. As the Ranger and the hobbits saw them off, they noticed the beasts’ hindquarters were already bunching.
Aragorn leaned against the tree, panting heavily. “I will tell Elrond of this when we return,” he murmured. “My lord must know that a watch is on his lands.” He turned to the halflings. “Can you go on a little farther tonight? I would leave this unlucky place behind us.”
Frodo glanced at each of his friends and nodded. “We are very weary, but I agree, Aragorn, if you feel able to go on. Let us find a quiet, sheltered spot and then rest.”
Pippin gathered up Aragorn’s pack, slinging it over his shoulder and across the front of his body, nearly overbalancing himself. “When we get there,” asked Pippin, “may we eat? I’m hungry.”
* 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.