7. Lesson Seven: Guiding your hobbit over difficult terrain
"Perhaps Aragorn and I should attempt to carry them across on our backs," I suggest to Gandalf, who shakes his head slightly.
"Do you think you could safely reach this side with the additional weight?" he queries.
I measure the distance with my eyes and think about the effort it took for me to leap across. I am about to answer, "Most likely," but Gandalf has already noted my hesitancy. "No, no," he mutters, and I can see those keen eyes thinking. "I am certain they can cross it, if they can overcome their fear." I wonder if perhaps the wizard wants to decrease the hobbits' dependence on us bigger folk, in case the day comes when we are not there to steady them over pitfalls.
Gandalf raises his voice and, using a falsely bright tone, calls across, "Come along then. You have all jumped this far before without even knowing it. Just give yourselves a bit of a run to start, and you will be fine."
"That is all good for you to say, Gandalf," Frodo replies, "as your legs are twice as long as ours." But he tightens the strap to his pack across his waist and heaves a great breath. "I'll go first, then."
"No, you won't," Merry says with grim determination. "If it does turn out to be too far for a hobbit to jump, we certainly shouldn't find that out by having you plunge, Ring and all, into the depths of Moria. I'll go first."
Frodo looks put out, and he addresses Merry with a sharp, "Hold on, now." There is a hushed and hurried conversation between the four of them (actually, it is more of a hissed confrontation between Frodo and Merry), and then Merry takes off his pack and sends it soaring over the chasm to land at my feet. Pippin appears frightened and Merry gives his upper arm a quick squeeze and flashes him a smile. He pointedly does NOT look at a clearly disgruntled Frodo, then takes a running start and bounds across the gulf.
He lands solidly on both feet on the other side, and I reach out to pull him further inward, making sure he is steady before I let go. He lets out a great gust of breath, and says decisively, "Well, THAT'S over with."
Reassured by Merry's success, Frodo follows in short order. It is still plainly written on Sam's face that he expects to find naught but black air under his feet at the end of his jump, but he screws up his courage (and his face) and follows his master. He stumbles when he lands, leaving him on his rear end, but safe nonetheless. I help him to his feet, and Gimli hands him the cooking ware-laden bag that so narrowly missed the dwarf's head when Sam threw it over. Then I turn my attention to the far side of the chasm again.
Peregrin is staring down into the depths with a look on his face that says he is most certainly not going to attempt the crossing. He swallows hard and then looks over at his cousins with desperate eyes. "Ah, no," Merry mutters.
"Come on, Pip," Frodo encourages. "Gandalf is right -- you have jumped this far before without even realizing it."
"Just pretend it's that brook in the south field by the Smials," Merry adds. "You can clear it, I know you can."
But Pippin shakes his head frantically. "I don't think I can," he admits in a shaky voice. "I have never jumped so far, I know I haven't."
Behind Pippin, Legolas speaks to Aragorn in a low voice that does not carry to us. Pippin is gripping the shoulder straps to his pack across his chest fiercely, as though they can prevent him from having to make the leap, and still staring fixedly at the gaping black maw in the path.
I edge as far out to the brink as I dare and hold out my arms. "Come, Master Took, I promise I will catch you," I try to encourage him. "Just don't look down and you will be fine."
But he still just frantically shakes his head no. Aragorn drops to one knee and puts a hand on Pippin's back, their heads close together. He talks to our youngest member in low murmurs for a long time, and finally, reluctantly, Pippin nods his head in agreement. Legolas leans down to whisper something in the hobbit's ear and gives him an encouraging smile, but Pippin does not return it. He takes off his pack and hands it to Aragorn, then takes a deep breath. His face set in the expression of grim despair I have too often seen on the faces of young men heading into battle, he backs up, runs to the edge, and launches himself across.
He lands precariously close to the brink, and for a flash of a second, his face lights up with triumph. But then, even as I reach out to steady him, he begins to teeter backward, still off-balance and feet not on safe ground.
The world has slowed to stretch these seconds into minutes. All three other hobbits cry out. Gimli and Gandalf rush forward. Pippin gives the merest little squeak of fright and no more, and then he is somehow in my arms, which have continued to move of their own accord, pulling him to me. I feel my own balance begin to tip forward, toward the chasm, but then Gimli and Gandalf are dragging both of us back from the edge as I clutch Pippin tightly to me.
Now I am standing, somehow, with Pippin in my arms, his face pressed into my neck, his body still rigid with terror, heart pounding so ferociously that I can feel it against me. The world has not sped up again yet, and now seems distant compared to the solid reality of the young hobbit lad clinging to me so tightly it almost hurts. Legolas is suddenly beside us, and I think with detachment that he must have leapt at the moment Pippin began to slip, perhaps hoping to knock the hobbit to safety with his own body. One hand is on my back and the other is trying to pry Pippin's face from my neck, but Peregrin merely stiffens his body more and secures his grip tighter.
About my waist, three shrill hobbit voices are demanding that I put Pippin down, but I could not let go at this moment should we be attacked by all the legions of Moria. I press my face into his soft curls and breathe deeply against the curve of his neck. Then Aragorn is also across the chasm, speaking in reassuring tones, telling the hobbits to give us a moment to get over the fright, and they quiet as Gandalf herds them back a few steps. Merry, though, presses closer and reaches up to grasp Pippin's knee in his hand, as if to reassure himself that his younger cousin is indeed alive and safe.
"Boromir," Legolas says clearly, in the manner of one who has repeated himself several times, and with a lurch time begins to run smoothly again, and I am able to extend my awareness past the little being that now trembles in my arms.
"He is unharmed," I say by way of answer, and finally look up into the elf's anxious eyes. "We are all right."
He nods, and moves away to reassure the other hobbits. Sam, I note, has had to sit down, and Frodo is breathing raggedly. Merry backs up a few steps to give us room, but his eyes do not stray from his cousin. Aragorn puts a hand on Pippin's back and rubs in a calming circle. "Pippin," he says, sounding as though nothing more frightening than a tumble down a grassy knoll has just occurred, "it's all right now. Can you let go of Boromir?"
Pippin shakes his head slightly, his death grip on me not slackening. Aragorn moves around me and gets his hand in between my shoulder and the young one's face. "Can you look at me then?" he asks quietly. "Just take a deep breath and lift your head."
Pippin obeys slowly, and then seems to come back to himself once he raises his head and looks first at Aragorn and then at me. Aragorn smiles reassuringly at him, though I cannot command my face to do so yet, and puts a hand on his shoulder.
"Better?" Aragorn asks, and Pippin nods, taking some large, hitching breaths. Aragorn checks his pulse at his neck and then gently strokes Pippin's curly head several times. Pippin's face is white in the dim light, but slowly returning to its normal hue, and he shows no evidence of tears. He is made of stern stuff, this lad. He is frightened and shaken, but I am more so. His breathing eases and his trembling subsides as Aragorn rubs his back again, and finally he heaves a sigh and leans forward to rest his forehead against my shoulder.
"If it was the brook in the south field, I would be sopping wet right now," he says weakly, and now I can smile, no matter how feeble the jest. I hug him gently, then ask, "Do you want down now, or should I carry you for a bit?"
"Down please; I am all right," he says, but then presses his face into my neck again for a second. "Thank you, Boromir," he whispers.
"You are most welcome," I murmur back, and then gently stand him on his feet. He seems a little shaky, but it has yet been but a few moments. Merry promptly draws him into an embrace, whispering something in Pippin's ear. The youngest hobbit nods in response, then, taking his pack from Aragorn and shouldering it, he greets Frodo and Sam, and soon all three older hobbits are fussing over him with loving abandon. I force myself to remain standing on trembling legs and return the grateful smile Merry gives me over Pippin's head with a shaky one of my own.
"Now, now, don't fuss so," Gandalf scolds the hobbits, gathering them about him like a mother duck with her offspring. "The lad is quite all right, aren't you, Peregrin? Come along, we are dallying when we should be walking." I catch him placing an affectionate pat on Pippin's head, and then he is back in his customary place with Gimli at the front of our procession. The dwarf also pauses to slap Pippin on the back, causing the little hobbit to stagger a bit, but the lad smiles with pleasure as he does so.
Aragorn falls into step beside me at the back of our company. He lets the others move a little ahead before he says softly, "It is startling, isn't it, how endearing these young hobbits are?"
I let out a rough, short laugh. "Indeed," I say. "I do not think I knew myself just how endeared I had become."
I know now.
"That was well done," he answers. "I have no doubt you saved his life."
I struggle for words, only now realizing fully what this quest, these companions have come to mean to me. "We are a fellowship," I finally say, quietly. "There is not one of us that I would not do much more for."
"Yes," Aragorn agrees, and I hear in his response the double meaning that he, too, would do this and much, much more for any of our number. Speaking of which . . .
"And, Aragorn, you should tell that elf that he may have been able to push Peregrin to safety, but it surely would have been at the cost of his own foolish self," I say, fully aware that Legolas has been slowly dropping back closer to us.
"It is so like a man to try and steal all of the glory for himself by belittling the mettle of others," Legolas retorts in a tone only the immortal can perfect. "I am grateful that it was not necessary to plunge my foolish self into that chasm, however," he adds, and I nod my head in acknowledgment of the sentiment behind the statement.
From somewhere ahead of us, behind the glimmer of Gandalf's illuminated staff, the soft voices of the hobbits carry back to me.
"Really, Pip, I don't know what all the fluster was about. Sam was the poor fellow flat on his behind," Frodo is saying in a teasing voice.
"We really thought you could do it, Pippin," Merry adds, his tone still worried and quavering. "We never would have told you to try otherwise. I would have made Strider carry you across if I'd thought at all that it really was too far for you."
"I know, Merry," Pippin says, and I am amazed by the confidence in his voice, not yet a quarter hour after he pressed against me, both of us too frightened to move or even cry out. "But it was all right, then, wasn't it? Good old Boromir caught me. You should have known he would -- he did promise to."
I am touched by the certainty in Pippin's tone that I would not have let him fall, but the two companions at my side, man and elf, snort a little. I suspect that no matter how fierce my scowl, I will be called "good old Boromir" for more days than I care to hear it. Ah, well, I tell myself, resigned to my fate, you did say you would do much more for this odd company of brothers-in-arms.