53. Things That Are True
It was after luncheon, as the entire party save Legolas were drifting peaceably towards a nap, that Merry asked Aragorn to examine his broken wrist. “It hardly aches at all any more, Aragorn,” Merry wheedled. “Will you take off the splint?”
“Let me look at it, Merry,” the Ranger responded. Merry plopped himself down by the Man and leaned comfortably against him, holding out his arm. Pippin drifted over to watch, sitting down across from the two. Sam watched too, cushioned comfortably against a pack. Frodo was already asleep, wrapped in his cloak and a blanket Sam had laid over him, a grimace of distaste from the tonic still visible on his features.
Taking the small wrist, Aragorn unwrapped the bandages and removed the sticks that had held the broken bone straight while it healed. Then he had the hobbit rotate his wrist and squeeze his hand, feeling the play of muscles and tendons underneath the skin.
That done, Aragorn released the wrist to its owner and sat back with a smile. “I pronounce you healed, Merry, though you should not strain that arm for a while yet. Try not to fall into any more rivers, won’t you?”
Rubbing his wrist, Merry sought to look offended. “I wouldn’t have fallen in if I hadn’t slipped going after those trout. I wouldn’t have gone after the trout if I hadn’t been trying to catch breakfast. I wouldn’t have been trying to catch breakfast if I hadn’t been hungry. Very hungry.” The last was delivered with a cocked eyebrow and rather a lot of cheek.
Aragorn refused to be baited. “It is my hope that you have spent this time away from Rivendell learning other ways to feed yourself, my friend.” He smiled to himself as he remembered Elrond’s request that he keep the hobbits away from Imladris for several days. Had his foster father had enough time to accomplish his purpose, he wondered?
“Bugs an’ bark,” muttered Sam, then tried to look as if he hadn’t spoken when the others looked at him. Sam coughed then laid himself down by his slumbering master with his back to them and ignored their amused glances and Pippin’s giggle.
“We could all use some rest,” the Ranger remarked. “Legolas, will you take the watch?”
“I will,” agreed the Elf.
Merry nudged Pippin down next to Frodo’s other side and laid himself on the outside of their little line. Aragorn dropped off to the sight of Legolas leaning on his great, unstrung bow, standing guard over the small pile of curls and furry feet and jostling elbows, his clear gaze watching over them all.
* * * * *
“What are you doing, Pippin?” Pippin jumped at the Elf’s soft voice, fumbling to hide the little object he had been toying with. He often awoke before his elderly kin and Sam, and it was a sore trial to the young hobbit to stay still and quiet and let the others rest. He tried to be considerate but his youthful energy often betrayed him. Too much exuberance would earn him the others’ censure, especially from Sam if he woke Frodo.
Pippin gladly accepted the arm up that pulled him from his sleeping place and set him on his feet a little way away from the others. Aragorn slept on, more deeply than was usual for him, relaxed and trusting of Legolas’ guard. A little abashed, the tweenager held up his fairy-stone for the Elf’s inspection. Legolas took the small stone and peered through the hole in its center as he had seen Pippin do, then looked inquiringly at the hobbit.
“It’s a fairy-stone,” Pippin offered, embarrassed to be reciting a nursling-tale to the immortal Elf. But Legolas, like Aragorn, did not laugh at him.
“Indeed?” remarked the Elf.
Pippin nodded vigorously. “It shows you things that are true.”
Legolas accepted this equitably. With the stone still to his eye, he looked through it at the surrounding Wild, a slight smile tugging at his lips. Then Pippin saw him stiffen, his entire body frozen into immobility.
“What is it?” the youngster asked, reaching up to tug on the Elf’s arm in sudden trepidation.
Legolas did not reply for a moment. He took the stone away from his eye and examined it intently, then raised it again to gaze through it. Pippin followed his line of sight. The Elf was looking at his fellow hobbits. No, thought Pippin, he was looking at Frodo.
“Pippin,” Legolas murmured. “Look. Do you see?”
Pippin took the stone from Legolas in bewilderment. He held the stone up and stared through it at his cousin. Frodo lay facing them, dark curls straggling into his eyes, fine-boned face slack in sleep. Then he looked back at the Elf in confusion.
“Look closely, young one,” whispered the Elf.
Pippin set the stone back to his eye and closed the other, peering intently. Then he inhaled softly and leaned forward. “He’s glowing. Frodo is glowing,” Pippin whispered in wonder.
“Shining, rather,” corrected Legolas softly. “As a moonbeam through a silver cloud.”
Pippin raised the fairy-stone again. A soft light enveloped his cousin, shining most strongly from his face and the single hand that lay outside the blanket. As he watched, Frodo twitched slightly and moved his arm away from before his chest. Now Pippin saw that something dark lay on his breast. Something black and altogether evil. That blackness was very small now, but it would grow. It would grow and devour the gently shining light that was his cousin. Pippin knew this with all of his heart and ever fiber of his being.
“Oh,” he murmured, tears starting from his eyes. Then his sight was blocked and Legolas gently pulled the stone away. The Elf sank down before the young hobbit, kneeling before him with a long hand on the tweenager’s shoulder. The Elf’s eyes were shadowed and Pippin knew that he, too, had seen the malignant pit of darkness.
“Pippin, you must say nothing,” said Legolas, raising his hand to stroke the hobbit’s soft curls gently.
“But… he’s got to take it off. Put it somewhere. Not wear it, at least!”
“He must wear it, little one. It must be borne. And by its appointed Bearer.”
“Legolas, it will kill him.” Pippin could barely speak around the lump in his throat. Suddenly his chest hurt, and he could not seem to draw in enough air. He wanted to scream and shout and hammer on the ground in his distress, and it took all of his self-control to refrain and keep his voice low.
“That is what we are here to prevent, Pippin.” Legolas sorrowed for the pain on the small one’s face. The little halfling stared up at him, the threatened tears now coursing down his cheeks. “We will shelter him from it as much as we can.” Legolas folded the stone into Pippin’s hand and placed it against the young hobbit’s heart. “He will need every ounce of protection we can give him.”
“But … but Merry and Sam and I … we can’t protect him. We can’t –“
“Pippin… Your job, little one, is not to defend him physically. Leave that to Gandalf and Aragorn and Boromir and Gimli and myself. You and Merry and Sam have the more important task.”
“More important?” Pippin whispered, struggling to understand.
The Elf nodded, his thumb brushing the tears from the young hobbit’s cheeks. “Yes. It is up to you three to keep him grounded. To remind him who he is, of what is at stake, through all the troubles that are coming. Your presence is what will keep him sane … keep the darkness you just saw from consuming him.”
“But…” Pippin whispered.
“Pippin?” Both twitched at the interruption of Frodo’s worried voice. Turning, Pippin saw that his cousin had risen up on his elbow, blinking sleepily, his face tight with concern. “What’s wrong, my dear?”
Uncaring that Sam and Merry still slept, Pippin threw himself on his cousin with a shout, first hugging him tight and then tickling him furiously. Startled but game, Frodo fought back, trying to pin his little cousin with a hand around the tweenager’s mouth to stifle his giggling. “Hush!” he scolded. “You will wake - ” A groan sounded from one of the others, followed by an “oof” as a thrashing brown-clad elbow dug into Sam’s midsection. “Pippin did it,” Frodo managed, then clamped his hand tighter over his cousin’s mouth when Pippin squealed in denial. Then all four hobbits were rolling about on the ground, laughing hysterically as quick fingers sought ticklish ribs and feet and the backs of knees, wrapping them up in a tangle of blankets. Aragorn had shot to his feet at Pippin’s first shriek, sword in hand, staring wildly about him. The Elf met his startled gaze and made placating motions, directing the Ranger’s eyes to the four-way melee now in progress. Aragorn sighed and sheathed his sword, reconciled to the peculiarities of hobbits – and tweenagers.
In his sudden battle to defend himself from tickling fingers and return Pippin’s attack, Frodo quite forgot to ask his young cousin what had upset him so before. And when the Ring-bearer noticed Legolas rise to draw a resigned Aragorn away to speak with him, he thought nothing of it, being too busy urging Merry to sit on Pippin so that he and Sam could tickle his young cousin’s feet.
Pippin kept close to Frodo for the entire afternoon, declining even to accompany Merry on a mushroom-hunting expedition. Merry and Frodo both were surprised at that, but Pippin remained adamant. Sam looked from one cousin to the other, catching the tweenager’s underlying tension, which had not abated even after the energetic exercise.
If Frodo took a stroll, Pippin went with him. If Frodo waded into one of the streams, so did Pippin. When he went over to prod the earth-mound (after Aragorn assured him it was safe to do so) and got down on his hands and knees to try to peer into it, a small shadow accompanied him. Matters came to a head sometime later when Frodo sought a little privacy behind a convenient tree.
“Pippin! By Elbereth! Go away!” Pippin waited faithfully, back turned, and rejoined his aggravated cousin as soon as Frodo emerged.
Legolas had watched in silence until this incident. “Will you speak to Pippin, Aragorn? I tried, but I do not think it helped. I believe the young one intends to stay firmly fixed to his cousin’s side from now on.” A slight smile quirked Legolas’ lips, though his gaze remained troubled. “By doing so, he will surely alert Frodo of his fears and worsen the situation.”
The Ranger was silent for some moments, his deep-set eyes on the peaceful foursome. The hobbits were engaged in watching the clouds drift across the cobalt sky, talking amongst themselves quietly. Pippin leaned against Frodo’s updrawn legs, head resting back on his elder cousin’s knees, while Sam sprawled comfortably at his master’s side and Merry lay on his back, his head cushioned on Pippin’s thigh. Merry was waving his hands about and the other three were listening intently. Was the young hobbit describing some grandiose scheme, Aragorn wondered, or plotting some further mischief to spring on his unsuspecting guardians?
“I do have something that should distract young Pippin, at least until he comes to terms with this,” Aragorn responded at last, coming to a decision.
* * * * *
Dinner was a joint effort, with Frodo (assisted by Pippin) and Merry proudly adding two rabbits that their snares had caught to their supply of meat. Sam brought down a passing grouse with his sling and stuffed it with the mushrooms Merry had foraged, wild garlic and two leftover parsnips. Legolas shot a high-flying duck, and Aragorn contributed his share by returning with an arm full of cattails, from which he taught the hobbits to make a bread-like paste by splitting the brown pulp and mashing it, then frying the dough in one of Sam’s fry pans. Not half bad, was Sam’s surprised verdict.
Pippin helped Sam wash the cook pots and spoons, all the while keeping Frodo in his sight as the Ring-bearer and his other cousin washed the plates and mugs. When Sam would have put out their small cook fire, Aragorn asked that he bank it instead. Then Aragorn called them to him and the entire party trooped up to the rise again to enjoy the marvelous display of nature.
This time the setting sun shone through the great fountain, casting sparkling rainbows through the lacy streams of falling water. The sun itself shone red through the water, painting the roaring column so that it looked like a geyser of blood. When Merry casually commented on the strange effect, Pippin shivered and wiggled closer to Frodo, all enjoyment gone from his eyes.
They watched the waters retreat in awed silence. Then Aragorn leaned forward, drawing their attention to him. “As we must start back tomorrow, I think we should celebrate our successful walking party. What would you say to some of Gandalf’s fireworks?”
The hobbits gaped at him. “But you said -” Pippin began.
“Yes, Pippin,” the Ranger interrupted gently. “But we made allowances for different circumstances. The color of the rocket set off first carries a message. We will set off this one first,” and so saying drew from his pack a long rocket with a white ribbon tied around it. “It was agreed that if the watcher in Rivendell saw the white rocket first, Elrond would know that we are not in danger, and are simply enjoying ourselves.”
Gandalf had given Aragorn six rockets. The hobbits were beside themselves to find that in addition to the one with the white ribbon, there was a firework for each of them, made especially as a gift from Gandalf. Frodo, Meriadoc, Peregrin and Samwise were written on the ribbons in the wizard’s distinctive script. The sixth had a plain grey ribbon. One by one, Aragorn tied them to long sticks he had saved for the purpose and stuck the sticks upright into the ground, then set them off with tapers from the rekindled cook fire. The white one was first. High it arced into the black night and exploded in a shower of brilliant silver stars. The hobbits laughed in joy and clapped their hands. But that was nothing compared with what was to come.
As eldest of the cousins, the next rocket to be set off was Frodo’s. It rose into the sky on a tail of brilliant blue and detonated into a great column of fire with a bang that momentarily deafened them, then cascaded down in perfect imitation of the wondrous geyser that had brought them to this place. Almost they could feel the gentle mist upon their faces. Merry’s was next, and the night sky was suddenly filled with fluttering birds of gold with turquoise wings and the sound of singing lingered on the air long after the bright sparks had faded. The third was Pippin’s. Red apples and emerald leaves rained down upon them, and the sound it made was of his own familiar high laughter carried from afar on a rush of wind. Sam’s was a waterfall of blossoms, crimson and pink and purple and all shades in between, and the scent of flowers drifted down to their upturned faces. Tears of delight and disbelief streamed down the hobbits’ faces that Gandalf himself had prepared such a gift for each of them. This was an honor akin to the dragon-rocket that Gandalf had prepared for Bilbo’s last Birthday Party, and it spoke volumes of their place in the old wizard’s heart. From the looks in their eyes, Aragorn knew that that this memory would be cherished in their hearts long after the last ashes had drifted on the wind to the Sea.
Aragorn had saved the one tied with a grey ribbon for last. With great ceremony, he tied the rocket to the last of the sticks and thrusting it into the ground, lit it. The rocket disappeared into the night and this time the watchers could not see the spark-trail of its ascension. The sky remained blank and dark, and the hobbits looked at each other in dismay.
“Did it fail?” asked Pippin, unable to conceive of one of Gandalf’s fireworks doing so, especially after the grand display they had already witnessed.
Then the black sky exploded with color. This rocket carried all the shades of the rainbow they had seen formed earlier that eve by the geyser, and all of the colors of each of their individual fireworks. Yellow, red, blue, green and purple, in smaller then larger bursts of brilliant showers, the rocket filled the night with starbursts of glowing sparks that seemed to go on an eternity.
The hobbits cried aloud in joy, inarticulate shouts of glee and astonishment. Legolas watched with his starry eyes, storing the sight forever in his perfect memory. Next to him, Aragorn also marveled in silence, but his mind was turned towards the future, to a time when he might ask the wizard for such a display to celebrate another event. At last the fire-trails dimmed and died and the sky was unadorned once more, save for the shining of the stars. The walking party sighed in bliss and went to their bedrolls, the joyous sparks reflecting still in their eyes and in their hearts.
* TBC *