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The three startled at the sound. The King looked at Mr. Appledore. "Were you expecting any other guests?" he asked.
"I weren't expecting *you*, begging your pardon, sir. And you're the first people to stop here in four years."
Frodo watched as the King, his hand on his sword, rose and went to the door. "Who is it?" he called out.
Frodo could not hear the answer himself, but the King could, and he looked surprised. He stood back as he opened the door. "Bergil! Pippin!"
The two entered, covered with snow, and Frodo-lad found himself cringing at the looks on their faces. They looked to be more than a little cross.
"Strider!" said Uncle Pippin in stern tones, "I am very surprised at you doing such a thing! And dragging young Frodo along! I'm quite sure Sam will have some words for you over this!"
Bergil put a hand on Pippin's shoulder. "You forget yourself, Sir Peregrin! Remember whom you address!" But the glare he himself aimed at the King was not exactly respectful, Frodo thought.
"No, I don't forget!" Uncle Pippin's face was red. Frodo-lad tried to remember if he had ever seen his honorary uncle so angry before. "He's not behaved very much like the King I know, endangering himself like this over a whim!"
Mr. Appledore, who had also risen to gaze in astonishment at these two newcomers gave a strangled noise. "K-king?" and fell to the floor in a swoon. The thud as he hit the floor matched the thud the door made, as the wind whipped it back against the wall.
Frodo darted over to him. "Oh no! See what you've done, Uncle Pippin?"
The King and Uncle Pippin rushed to the poor Man's side. Captain Bergil took an moment to shut the door, and then he too, came over.
But Mr. Appledore was already coming round with a moan. The King gave him a sip of wine.
"You-you're the King, Strider?"
"But-but you came yourself, to bring me these things…"
"It's all right, Mr. Appledore. Please, do not trouble yourself on my account." He turned and looked at Bergil. "I will not deny your right to feel angry with me, Captain. But I would like to know why you disobeyed my order."
"I did not, sire," Bergil answered curtly. "I had ridden less than halfway, when I met a Shire Post rider, who had been sent with some messages to the lodge; it was a simple enough matter to make an exchange--I took the messages he bore, and he took mine and headed straight for Brandy Hall. I turned around and went back to the lodge, where I found Sir Pippin and Sir Merry both in fine tempers."
"The weather was getting worse, Strider," Uncle Pippin interrupted, "and we'd found your note. And then I found out that you had not ridden, but *walked* on your little errand! Thank goodness Bergil returned when he did! I tucked Merry up, and the two of us rode out, bringing your own horse behind us. Fortunately, Merry was able to tell us where to find this place!"
Mr. Appledore moaned again. "All on my account…"
"It's all right, Mr. Appledore," said Frodo. "Come on, let's get you into your bed."
Once more the attention of all four were turned upon their distraught host, as he was assisted to rise. He was reluctant at first, but soon allowed himself to be persuaded by all of these unaccustomed guests, who were rather overawing him. They guided him to his narrow cot.
Frodo-lad looked over at Captain Bergil and Uncle Pippin, who still looked a bit cross--though not so cross as they had when they first arrived. "Uncle Pippin, I can't be sorry we came! Poor Mr. Appledore--I think he would have spent a very cold and hungry night if we had not!"
Pippin's face softened. "You've a good heart, Frodo-lad, just like your namesake."
Frodo blushed to the tips of his ears. While it always made him proud to be compared to his father, to be told that he was like his never-known--yet all the same, well-beloved--Uncle Frodo--oh! It made his eyes sting! "Thank you, Uncle Pippin," he whispered, abashed.
"Well, Strider, I can't say that I can stay angry with you--but Merry is going to be fretting dreadfully until we return. Will you come back with us now?"
"Yes," said the King, "but not quite yet. I wish to speak to our good host, first." He went over, and knelt next to the bed, where the Man lay, still pale, and took his wrist to check his pulse. "You are still distressed, my friend. Do not be. You made a mistake long ago; consider it forgiven."
Mr. Appledore burst into tears at this, but the King continued. "Now, I know that you have made yourself at home here, but I would like you to consider something for me."
There was a sniff. "Yes, m-my lord?"
"I have a splendid new lodge, not far from here, in which I will have little time to spend. I find that I am in need of a caretaker there. Would you like the position?"
"My lord!" The poor Man's eyes grew huge with astonishment.
"I do not ask that you answer me tonight. With the firewood and food we have brought, you should be all right for a few days. As soon as the snow is safe, come let us know your answer."
Mr. Appledore nodded. The King placed a hand upon his brow, and leaned to murmur a few words in his ear. Soon their host was snoring gently.
The King stood up. "Let us bring in the rest of the firewood for him--but quietly." He looked at Frodo-lad, who had picked up one of the extra blankets they had brought, and was gently putting it over the sleeping Man. "Good lad," he said with approval.
The basket was tidied up, the leftover food repacked neatly, and it was placed upon the chair. Uncle Pippin banked the fire, so that it would smoulder with warmth till morning. They did all that they could to make sure they were leaving Tom Appledore warm and safe. Quietly, and with a bit of regret for the warmth they were leaving behind, the four visitors bundled up, and went back outside.
It was frosty cold, but the wind had died down, and it appeared the snow had stopped. Uncle Pippin and Bergil mounted their steeds. "Frodo-lad," asked Uncle Pippin, "will you ride with me?" for they had not brought Frodo's own pony.
But the King had mounted his horse, and he held his hand down. "No, Sir Peregrin, I think my page will ride with me."
Frodo grinned, and soon was seated in front of the King on his mighty horse, and the four rode away from the hut.
As they rode out from beneath the canopy of the trees, the sky was clear above them, and the night was brilliant with stars; Frodo glanced back at the hut, just barely to be made out. The bare branches of the trees looked like black lace against the indigo heavens. It was a beautiful night.
"Do you think Mr. Appledore will take you up on your offer to be caretaker at the lodge?"
"I do think that he will. His loneliness has become a burden to him, and knowing that we did not think ill of him for his poor choice when he was young has lightened that burden a good deal."
They rode silently for a few moments. Captain Bergil and Uncle Pippin were slightly ahead of them.
Then the King spoke again. "I am sorry that I endangered you, Frodo. I made a poor choice myself this day."
"Begging your pardon, sire," Frodo said, "but I don't think you did, 'cause it's hard to know what the weather will do--even my dad gets it wrong sometimes. That poor fellow would have been very cold and hungry without our help. I don't think he had enough firewood left to last till morning, and what he had for food wouldn't've kept a bird alive!"
"Perhaps you are right. Still, I should have paid more attention to the weather."
"The stars are bright tonight," Frodo said. He pointed up to the sky. "Sam-dad says that one is Eärendil. Is the story about it true?"
"Yes, Eärendil was my long ago ancestor, and the Queen's grandfather."
"Oh." Frodo-lad gazed at the star with new interest. He'd thought perhaps it was just a pretty story, to explain why his father loved the star so much. He thought of the star his father had seen in Mordor, and of the Lady's phial. He leaned back and relaxed into the warmth of the rider behind him.
Perhaps Uncle Pippin had heard their soft conversation, for he began to sing quietly--
Earendil was a mariner In panoply of ancient kings,
In panoply of ancient kings,
Frodo-lad yawned. Sleepily he murmured "I'm glad I'm going to be your page, Uncle Strider…" and heard a warm chuckle answer him, before he drifted off to sleep.
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