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(Element in this part: a bag of stones.)
EUCATASTROPHE: THE RETURN, PART FIVE
The three hobbits picked at their food in silence; it was all they could do to finish what was on their plates, and none of them had any interest in seconds.
Pippin, too, had thought there was something a bit shifty about that fellow the Rangers had gone off with, and if *Frodo* thought so, it was dead certain, for Frodo was an excellent judge of character--especially since the Quest. He glanced up for a moment at Merry, but Merry didn’t meet his gaze.
Suddenly Frodo said, “If it had not been for me, would Mellor and Eradan have allowed you to accompany them?”
Pippin looked at Frodo, startled. But, as Merry still had not thought fit to say anything, he answered, “I daresay they might have. And if we had insisted, they could not have gainsaid us. As knights, we outrank them.”
Merry finally spoke. “They know we are soldiers. But you are not, and you outrank all of us--they would not risk leaving you on your own.” He met Frodo’s gaze.
Frodo looked right back. “I am no warrior; but I’m far from helpless.”
“Frodo you can’t be thinking--” Merry started to say, but Pippin put his hand on Merry’s arm.
“I can,” replied Frodo. “As you just reminded me, I outrank you. And in more ways than one. I am *still* the eldest here, as I will thank you to remember.” He stood abruptly, causing the cushion to fall the to floor. “I’m going. You may come or not, as you please. But first, I think, I shall need my cloak.” And he strode off in the direction of their chamber.
Pippin stood up. “We’ll need our cloaks as well, and our swords I think.”
Merry gave a long-suffering sigh, and followed.
A few moments later, with their cloaks, and Merry and Pippin armed, they returned to the common room, where Frodo sought out the innkeeper.
“Mr. Rushlight, what do you know of that fellow who left with the Rangers?” he asked.
“Well, as to that, Mr. Baggins, he’s a hired man out at a little farmstead east of town. He works for Tell Goatleaf and his sons Tom and Diccon--I think he’s kin of some sort as well, mayhap a nephew.”
Frodo looked worried. “How long have they been here?”
“Tell moved here about a month or so ago, not long after we reopened the Inn. I think he wanted to get away from Bree, after all the trouble his other son Harry caused.”
Pippin gave a start. Harry Goatleaf? He was the one who might have collaborated with the Ruffians, perhaps even with the Black Riders. And these were family of his? His hand sought the hilt of Trollsbane, and he felt comforted at the solid and cold feel of the metal. They had dealt with Ruffians before, after all.
“Where is this farmstead?” Merry asked.
“About two furlongs west of the village, there’s a lane leading into the wood south of the Road. The farmstead is about three furlongs down the lane.”
The innkeeper bit his lip. “Do you think--”
Frodo shook his head. “No, Mr. Rushlight. You have a wife and son. But if we, or the Rangers, have not returned by the morrow you may wish to send word to Bree.”
The hobbits went out of the Inn and into the courtyard. It was twilight, and the Sun was low in the west, though she had not set, but even so a couple of stars were twinkling in the sky above. Frodo stopped briefly and took a small bag from his pocket. He removed the only thing in it: his pipe, which he replaced in his pocket. Then he stooped and carefully selected a handful of stones with which he filled the bag.
Silently, as only hobbits can, they moved westward along the Road, back the way they had already travelled. Pippin could not help wishing for some of his other friends--Strider, perhaps, or Legolas. Not Gimli. Dwarves were excellent fellows, but far too noisy for such stealth as they required tonight. Moving lightly, and clad in their Elvencloaks, they were very nearly as invisible as any Ring could have made them.
Merry walked in front, his own sword drawn, and Frodo followed. Pippin took the rear, and though he yet kept hand to Trollsbane, he did not draw it.
It was full dark by the time they came to the lane the innkeeper had told them of, with the Moon waxing at the half he lent only a small amount of light, and Merry walked right past the turning, ere Frodo stopped him.
“We turn aside here,” said Frodo.
“I think we should not walk on the lane, but alongside it,” said Merry.
“I agree,” said Frodo, “and now *I* should go in front, for my night-vision is better than either of yours.”
Merry looked set to protest, but Pippin said, “He’s right, Merry, and you know it.”
Merry met Pippin’s gaze briefly, and then nodded, and Frodo took the lead, and they vanished into the darkness. Pippin now drew his sword, and kept his eyes on Merry’s back, for he could scarcely see Frodo at all.
It was true: the Quest had sharpened Frodo’s sight and hearing nearly as much as that of an Elf, and it had heightened that Tookish insight he shared with Pippin until it was far beyond anything comprehensible to the average hobbit. It was, Pippin had supposed, a sort of compensation for all that Frodo had suffered.
Pippin had always loved Frodo in a far different way than Merry. Merry had always been a playmate and a comrade, in spite of their age differences. But Frodo had been someone that Pippin had admired and respected, more of a beloved teacher and mentor, though they had their own share of fun together. Pippin had always been fascinated by Frodo’s confidence and determination and intelligent wisdom. And he had always known that someday he’d follow his older cousin into Adventure.
When they had first left the Shire, especially when they had left Bree, Pippin had sometimes felt the whispers of the Ring, beckoning him with glimpses of fame and glory that could be his. But It never seemed able to offer him what he really wanted--young as he was, he scarcely knew himself what he really wanted, save peace and safety for all of them. It kept at him though, until one evening not long out of Bree, It suddenly stopped. Pippin thought perhaps It had simply given him up as a lost cause.
And then Pippin slowly began to realize that the Ring had not left off. Not at all. Frodo was using all his own determination to shield him and Merry and Sam from Its constant blandishments. In fact, thinking back on it, Pippin believed it was that, more than anything else, that kept Frodo from succumbing to his wound at Weathertop--he would not abandon Sam, Merry or Pippin to the Ring.
But as the Quest continued, that protection had come at a cost, as Frodo’s sense of self was eroded, day by day in his struggle with the Ring.
It had made Pippin nearly sick to see the doubt and fear and pain and guilt in Frodo’s eyes. Sometimes, Pippin was glad to have been spared the worst of it, the way it must have been in Mordor. Poor Sam, how it must have hurt him to see Frodo like that.
When victory had come, all had been elated to find out they were all still alive, though battered and the worse for wear. Between Strider’s healing hands, and Lord Elrond’s, augmented by his use of Vilya, now freed of the threat of domination by the One, they had been mostly restored to health.
Even the terrible memories and dreams were few and far between.
But, as Frodo had been the worst off, his health remained precarious. Lotho’s murder at the hands of Ruffians, and the signs of trouble in the Shire itself had shaken them all, but Frodo blamed himself--even though all of them knew it could have been, and very nearly had been, much worse. It was not until he had gone with Gandalf to escort Bilbo across the Sea and returned, that Frodo was finally able to be fully healed. The proof of it was here and now, in the confident way Frodo was leading them through the darkness, now and then stopping, so that they could swerve around some obstacle that only Frodo could see.
“If he’s meant to keep watch,” hissed Merry, “he’s not doing much of a job.”
“So much the better,” whispered Pippin. “And I think now it is my turn. I can move more quietly than either of you.”
Merry looked as though he might dispute it, but then nodded, and so did Frodo. Silently, slipping from shadow to shadow, Pippin crept to the nearest window. The Man never even glanced in his direction.
Pippin blessed his extra inches. He scarcely needed to tip-toe, and the sill was right at his eye level. He peered within.
A small, banked fire gave a dim glow from the hearth, on the floor in front of which lay Mellor and Eradan, well-trussed. It was hard to be certain in the faint light, but it looked as though there was blood on Mellor’s brow. There was a table in the center of the room with a candle burning low, and a Man sat there, his head pillowed on his arms. A bottle of some sort of spirits stood by his elbow.
In a cot on the far side of the room, an older Man with grizzled hair and white beard, sprawled, snoring loudly. Pippin took it all in. There should be, he thought, another Man somewhere. He shifted slightly, so that he could look at the room from another angle--there! beyond the hearth! Another cot, another slumbering figure, and best of all, a third window. He gazed at the room for a minute longer, so as to be certain of all the details, and then, moving as quietly and quickly as he had come, he hurried back to where Frodo and Merry huddled behind a tree.
In a hushed whisper, Pippin explained the situation. There was a brief silence, as all of them thought rapidly, and then Merry said, “All right, here is what we need to do…”
A moment or two later, Pippin watched anxiously, clutching Merry’s arm, as Frodo stepped out from behind the tree, one of the stones from his bag in his hand. A sudden flash of his arm, and an instant later, Ab Thistlewool slid down the doorpost to the ground.
Now, Pippin and Frodo watched as Merry, darting among the shadows the way Pippin had earlier, made his way to the back of the cottage. As soon as he had vanished behind the corner, Pippin and Frodo made their own way to the near window through which Pippin had spied their foe earlier. Softly as they could, Pippin boosted Frodo through the window. He passed his sword to Frodo, and then followed himself. The two of them hung back against the wall, and watched as Merry managed to clamber in the other window by himself. Pippin saw that Eradan had noticed them. The Man’s eyes grew wide. Pippin grinned at him, and Frodo put a finger to his lips. The Ranger nodded, and prodding Mellor with his foot, pointed with his chin to the hobbits. Mellor’s gaze was shocked. But he kept silent.
Now came the tricky part.
Pippin watched as Frodo went to the floor, and crawled along it, under the table. Very carefully, he untied the Man’s bootlaces, and then tied them back again--together. Now Pippin and Merry crawled over, and using their swords, cut the Ranger’s bonds. While Mellor and Eradan managed to finish unwrapping the ropes, Merry went over the cot of the older sleeping Man, and Pippin to the other cot. Frodo crawled back out of the way, and stood against the wall, another stone in his hand, just in case it was needed.
As soon as it was clear that the Rangers were able to stand up, Merry and Pippin placed their swordtips at the sleeping Men’s throats. Merry said aloud “Do not move!”
Pippin watched as the younger Man’s eyes flew open. He kept his gaze locked on his prisoner, and did not let Trollsbane’s tip waver. “I do know how to use this, even if I don’t like to,” he said cheerfully. “I’d really rather not have to cut your throat.” He ignored the sound of cursing behind him, and the commotion as the Man at the table fell over, his feet tangled together. He really had to give Merry credit for such a fine idea--he’d never have thought of using that method to subdue one of them. Even when he heard a scuffle across the room, and a cry of pain, followed by a thud, he did not let his attention wander. The cry of pain had not been Merry, which was all he needed to know. And the thud was probably Frodo using the stone. A second later, he felt a large presence behind him, and the Man on the bed looked even more frightened if possible.
“Thank you for your timely rescue, Sir Peregrin.”
“You are quite welcome, Eradan. Is everyone else all right?” Pippin stepped back as Eradan reached down and pulled the Man up by his collar.
“Yes, it does appear so. Mellor suffered a blow to the head when they ambushed us, but he seems to be fine now. The leader of this little band of outlaws is wounded, but not seriously so.” Eradan began tying the prisoner up with the very ropes he had been bound with, and Pippin finally sheathed his sword.
“That fellow who lured you out here was also knocked out by Frodo’s accurate arm. He’s just outside the door.”
Now Pippin finally turned, and saw Frodo tying the Man who’d been at the table to the chair. Mellor was dragging Ab Thistlewool in, and it was clear that the older Man was now unconscious, though there was blood in evidence as well. Merry was using the end of a blanket to clean his sword.
“What happened, Merry?” Pippin asked.
Merry shrugged. “He didn’t believe me when I said ‘don’t move‘. I had to stick him in the shoulder. And then Frodo knocked him out.”
“Ah!” He bent over the prone form, and lifted an eyelid. “I think he’s well and truly out of it for a while, but he’d best be tied anyway, just in case.”
Mellor came over. “I’ll see to that, then.” And he swiftly bound the Man’s hands and feet, before checking the stab wound. His brow rose, and he took the blanket, and ripped a long strip, with which he staunched the bleeding.
“I did not want to kill him,” said Merry. He was a bit pale.
“I do not think he will die of his wound, Sir Meriadoc. This was well done, my friends, and I thank you more than I can say for your rescue. These villains had us marked for death in the morning. They did not kill us yet because they meant for us to walk to our graves on our own two feet. Apparently they thought that we were here to put an end to their highway robbery, and decided to get rid of us before we had a chance to investigate.”
Frodo finished securing the knots on the Man at the table and stood up, glancing at Merry. “What should we do now?” Pippin hid a grin. It did not even occur to his cousin to ask *him* about strategy, and he noticed with a certain amount of gratification that Frodo did not ask the Men either.
Merry briefly glanced at Mellor and Eradan, and Pippin thought he saw a flash of smugness on Merry‘s face as well, and then said, “I should think one of us should stay here with them, and the other two should walk back to the Inn--it’s nearly morning now--and see to getting a cart or waggon sent out here for the prisoners.”
Mellor nodded. “That sounds like a good plan, Sir Meriadoc.” And Pippin noticed respect in Mellor’s voice, if there was a touch of embarrassment on his face. However much the two Men had voiced the opinion that they believed the hobbits were capable warriors, he was quite sure that underneath, it had to be just a tiny bit disconcerting to owe their rescue to hobbits, after all.
“I’ll stay,” Pippin said. “I’m sworn to King Elessar, after all.” Besides, he thought, it would be fun to stay here and find out the story of how those two Rangers had come to be caught out.
Frodo and Merry chuckled in agreement, and headed back out into the balmy evening, but not before Pippin caught them exchanging a look, and rolling their eyes.
Pippin leaned against the fireplace, and took out his pipe. “Is there anything to eat around here?”
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