57. Decisions To Be Made
“I am not a healer,” returned Brendion. “He has no broken bones, and naught to show for this morning’s adventure but scrapes and bruises, and that deep gash over his ear. That is the cause of his blindness, I fear.”
“How so?” Granlion kept his voice soft and soothing, the light, warm monotone betraying none of his anxiousness.
Brendion reached across and ran his fingers lightly just above the bandaged side of the young hobbit’s head. The bandage had been soaked in icy river-water and it felt slimy and cold. “His skull was not broken or fractured, which is a miracle in itself. But he took a hard blow, and there is swelling underneath the skin and I fear within the skull. Such swelling presses against the brain, against the conductors of light and sight to the eyes. No wonder he thought it was night when he awoke earlier and could see nothing. Pressed too long … the damage is permanent. It can even kill should the pressure become too great.”
The younger Elf had no reply to that. Instead, he held the limp form gently as Brendion re-wetted the bandage about the little one’s head, pouring onto it the still-cold water of the river from his water skin.
“We must go,” Brendion murmured. “We cannot linger. If we do our last check and ride hard, we might arrive home before the sun sets on the morrow.”
“Ride hard…” repeated Granlion. “I fear to jostle this one too much. We are not healers, as you said. What if there are internal injuries? What if there is bleeding inside the skull?”
The senior Elf hesitated, then laid a gentle hand against Pippin’s cheek. “I have heard our lord talk of freezing water actually reducing injury – the vessels that carry blood constrict and retard bleeding. He seems warmer now, at least.” Pippin snuffled in his sleep and wiggled himself closer to the warm chest against him. Brendion’s resolve faded as a small hand emerged from the blankets and sought about in unconscious need for reassurance. Brendion caught the seeking hand carefully in his own, avoiding the ends of the tiny fingers where the nails had been torn away. The little hand tightened around his fingers, warm and clinging. The Elf rubbed his thumb gently over the back of the little hand then guided it back down and under the blanket, pulling the covering up warmly to the tiny chin. Pippin sighed, comforted, and slept on.
“You will take him back to Imladris,” Brendion said. “I will continue our circuit and report home upon completion. Take Pippin to our lord – he will know what can be done to help the little one.”
“Thank you,” whispered the younger Elf.
Brendion nodded shortly. “Ride quickly, but carefully. Tell our lord of the signs of Men we have found.”
“I will.” Granlion rose gracefully from his cross-legged position, cradling the sleeper in his arms. Brendion assisted him in mounting and handed him the reins. “Peace, my friend,” he murmured to the great Elven-charger, who had craned his long neck around curiously to examine their little passenger. The horse bobbed his head once then stood waiting.
“May Elbereth guide your steps and keep you safe,” said the older Elf, in benediction and in parting. “Both of you.”
* * * * *
Though they searched diligently, the walking party could find no further evidence of Pippin’s expulsion from the rocky tunnel in the area where his cloak and its fantastical burden had been discovered. When he was absolutely certain that nothing more could be learned among the rocks and icy eddies, Aragorn motioned them onward.
“Stay close to the banks, but not so close that you might fall in yourselves,” the Ranger cautioned them. “Call me immediately if you see any sign and take care not to disturb anything that you might find. Footprints, evidence of dragging…” Never did Aragorn say, “or his body,” but the others heard it anyway.
The hobbits were very quiet, without the noisy, cheerful calling back and forth by which Aragorn had learned to keep track of them. A sharp pang of sorrow sliced through the Ranger; it was as if the loss of Pippin had hollowed out the heart of the hobbits’ company. The Ranger reflected that he had never been truly cognizant of how that young one had formed the center of the others’ universe. Sam keep glancing from the river to Frodo, tensing visibly when his master’s path took him close to the swift water. Frodo was oblivious, totally focused on examining every inch of shore. The Ranger was certain that not even an ant would escape his notice. But it was Merry who drew his gaze and his worry the most. The young halfling scrubbed at a steady stream of involuntary tears and if he raised his eyes at all, it was only to search the ground around him. Legolas’ gaze followed Aragorn’s, sorrow in his starry gaze, and shook his head.
Again it was the Elf whose keen eyes made the discovery, ranging farther from the shores, leaving the more obvious ground for those less skilled at tracking than he. Where the grass trailed off and surrendered to rocky sand and pebbles, Legolas knelt, his clear eyes intent. “Aragorn! Aragorn!”
The hobbits and the Man converged on the Elf, both fear and hope warring in their eyes. Legolas caught Merry before he could fling himself to the ground, lifting the trembling hobbit and gently moving him back. “Let Aragorn look, little one,” he whispered. After a moment, Merry nodded and let Frodo wind an arm around his waist.
Aragorn sank to his knees before the scuffed earth, silent and rapt with attention. Wordlessly he motioned them all back, pointing that they should stand off to the left. “Over there,” he directed. “We must none of us obscure the back trail.”
“What back trail?” Sam burst out. “Please, sir, what is it?”
It was Legolas who answered, reassurance in his voice. “There are two sets of prints that leave the grassy swath here and venture out towards the water. They are slender and step lightly, hardly leaving an imprint in the grass or sand.”
Aragorn sat back and rested his palms on his thighs, staring towards the river. “Elves.”
“Elrond’s folk,” murmured Legolas. “A scouting party, perhaps? One of those sent out to gather news of the Enemy?”
“I would think it likely. A scouting party, or perhaps a pleasure hunt. Though they walk lightly, without the deeper indentation of the heels that would indicate a successful hunt. Yes, I would think a scouting party. Either way, they would be mounted.”
“What has this to do with Pippin?” asked Frodo’s soft voice.
“Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. They might have merely needed to refill their water skins, and chose a convenient place. That low boulder we passed slows the stream and diverts the water into that little eddy.” So saying, the Man cautioned them all to stay where they were and went to the small sandy area of shore. They saw his back stiffen, then he sank down again and peered at the earth.
“What? What is it?” This time it was Merry who spoke, the first words he had uttered since he had broken down in Frodo’s arms, hours ago. His voice was hoarse and a world of grief was throttled down in it.
For a moment Aragorn did not reply, his gaze traveling back up the bank. “One set of prints wades into the water here … the second joins it, running. See how the length between the strides of the second prints increases?” He cast about on the shore, keen eyes searching. “They go in, they go in … and come out … here! Look – one of the Elves is carrying something! See how much more deeply his feet press into the soft ground? The sand is pushed aside and the pebbles trodden into the earth.”
The hobbits broke from Legolas’ light grasp and ran down to him then, but Aragorn did not reprimand them. They were careful, even in their desperate hope, and did not trample the telltale track. Merry fell to his hands and knees, his snubbed nose bare inches from the sign, but could make little of the disturbed soil. “Then what? Aragorn, then what?”
“Easy, lad,” murmured Frodo softly.
The Ranger gently inched Merry back. “Something was laid down here – these larger rocks have been slid out of the way. I can make nothing of the depression but –“ Suddenly Aragorn fell silent and crouched down, his nose but inches from the ground. The others crowded around him, except for Legolas, whose Elven-eyes spared him the need to peer so at the ground. Small brown specks dotted some of the rocks, hardly distinguishable from flecks on the river-stones. But when Aragorn picked one of the stones up to examine it, the tiny droplets rubbed off on his hand, leaving a smear of red.
“Blood,” whispered Aragorn.
“Is it Pippin? Is he alive?” Merry half-sobbed, rising to his knees. Frodo crouched next to him and again slid his arm around Merry’s waist, pulling him close, and Sam placed a hand on his shoulder.
“If what was pulled from the river was Pippin,” the Ranger said, his own words on a hobbit’s ability to ‘bounce back’ echoing through his mind, “then I would say they picked him up and would no doubt tend to him.” As he was speaking, his eyes were roving over the rough terrain. “There! The prints go up back into the forest. That will make them more difficult to track… Elves leave little trail and the grass and trees will cover such as there is.”
“Then we follow?” asked Legolas, his eyes glowing.
“We follow!” affirmed Aragorn, a wild hope springing in his heart. “Forth the five hunters!”
* * * * *
The walking party came upon the abandoned campsite scant hours later. Two legs, no matter how willing, do not move as quickly as four and Aragorn knew that they were falling ever behind those they pursued. He ran the cold ashes of the fire through his hands and rose to shade his eyes from the mid-day sun, staring to the north. Coming upon the hoof-prints had eased his mind greatly. The dainty conformation of the hooves confirmed it. Only Elven-steeds showed such grace in their prints, and in their strides.
While the hobbits rested, he and Legolas moved about the deserted camp, noting where the grass was just beginning to spring back after being long crushed under a seated burden. The grass had already returned to its natural state in a second location, right next to the more crushed place, indicating that another had sat there either less long or less weighted. It was not difficult to find the place that the horses had been; the two Elves had stayed there some time. When he saw that one charger led north and the other away, he called Legolas to his side.
“How are they?” Aragorn asked, with a wave towards the hobbits. Sam lay on his back, his pack cast aside and his arms spread wide, puffing like a bellows, his round face red with exertion. Merry had shed his pack and leaned against it near Sam, panting hoarsely and rubbing his feet. Frodo had not even bothered to remove his pack; he had merely dropped where he stood, covered in perspiration, his entire body trembling with weariness.
“They cannot hold the pace, Aragorn. Hobbits are not made to run and run and run. Frodo, especially. He is not yet so strong, though he would deny it and keep on until his heart bursts from the strain.”
Aragorn nodded. He had noted with growing alarm the Ring-bearer’s high color and the increasing difficulty with which Frodo moved. He and Legolas could have easily outdistanced the hobbits, but he refused to split what remained of the walking party further. Even within Rivendell’s borders, this excursion had shown there was danger to the small folk. He would not risk more ill happenstances.
He had demanded the hobbits lighten their loads, cast away all unnecessary weight from their packs (nearly causing a revolt from Sam when the little gardener found out that dictate included his treasured cooking pots). Since then they had raced without rest, walking, trotting and running as wolves do, to cover great distance in little time.
“And now they have separated,” Aragorn said. Legolas’ keen eyes had already seen the divergence of the two sets of hoof-prints. “Which do we follow? Pippin’s slight weight does not add enough to a horse’s trail to determine which way he has gone.”
“One of the riders carries him to Elrond, Aragorn. I am certain of it.”
“I think so, too. We will follow the northern trail then.” Aragorn turned to rouse the hobbits but Legolas caught his arm.
“You cannot ask them to go on like this, Aragorn. They are all nearly finished, and I fear for Frodo.”
“What are we to do, then?” Aragorn gritted out the words, frustration in his tone. “We dare not leave them.”
Legolas had been staring at the delicate hoof-prints in the grass. He smiled then, and the Man’s heart lifted, knowing that joyous look of old. “I have an idea. We must talk to Sam.”
The stocky hobbit was still breathing heavily when the two called him over and spoke to him in swift, urgent voices. He stared at them in guilty disbelief, his round face paling.
“Hand it over, Sam,” Aragorn ordered. “We know you have it.”
Sam flushed while Frodo and Merry stared at him in puzzlement. Caught, he trudged reluctantly back to his pack, untied it and dug around, emerging with his fist clutched tightly around the handle of his last remaining cooking pot. Frodo struggled to his feet and trailed after him back to the two, and Merry followed a moment later, his breath restored enough to be curious.
“We will overlook the fact that I told you to discard all unnecessary weight,” Aragorn said graciously. “It is well that you kept one hidden. And the sack? I know a hobbit would not discard that.”
Wordlessly, Sam handed the Ranger a lumpy draw-string bag. Aragorn loosened it and poured its entire contents into the pot, shook it, then emptied his water skin into it. He stirred the mixture with a forefinger, then withdrew the digit and licked it. “Now, if you will make a fire, we will see what the smell of this little concoction attracts.”
Sam spaded over the last shovelful of earth for the fire pit as Merry dumped a armful of firewood and Frodo arranged it carefully, constructing the small pyramid with an opening at the base for the fire to draw. Legolas had already found two forked sticks and cut a long branch, stripping it of leaves. The Elf rammed the sticks into the earth and ran the branch through the pot’s handle, hanging it above the growing fire.
Despite being stared at by five sets of impatient eyes, the watched pot boiled quickly. Sam covered his nose and moved upwind. “Smells right awful,” he complained. “And I’m never going ‘ta get that sticky mess out of me pan. Me favorite pan,” he added mournfully.
“Burning sugar-water may smell bad to you and I, Sam,” Aragorn said, “but to others it is a perfume sweeter than nectar and ambrosia. And they would come long distances to obtain it.”
“Horses,” breathed Merry.
Legolas laughed softly. “Elrond frees his steeds when they are past the age of service, or when they have performed some great feat worthy of the act. You attended one such ceremony yourself, did you not?”
“Yes,” Merry murmured, remembering. “Pippin and I -” for a moment his voice quavered, then he closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, continuing on determinedly. “Pippin and I were there when he freed Inmara, for her service to Elladan and Elrohir and us. That old mare saved our lives, you know. They wove flowers in her mane and tail…”
“There are several such small herds of retired mounts scattered throughout Imladris,” Aragorn confirmed. “And all horses, every horse, loves sugar. If any are within scenting-distance, they will come.”
“So we wait?” This from Frodo, who was still struggling to hide the high color in his face and the trembling of his hands.
Aragorn looked at him with concern. “We wait.”
* 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.