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(Written for Marigold's Challenge #41)
EUCATASTROPHE: THE RETURN, PART NINE
“You have to be joking.” Frodo shook his head. “You mean to tell me there is no blacksmith?”
“No, Mr. Baggins. I’m sorry, but he’s not returned from Bree.”
Frodo took a deep breath. It was not Mr. Rushlight’s fault. But now his careful timetable was getting ruined. The cousins had taken exactly the time he had allotted to get to Rivendell, just as he had planned. And he had spent exactly ten days in gathering his research, and in visiting with his friends. Now they were on the road back, and by all rights, should arrive at Brandy Hall with a few days to spare before Merry had to sit for his gifts with Estella. He *had* after all, *promised* to get his cousin back for that wedding, and as Merry’s witness, it was his duty to make sure that Merry had time to do all the other things he needed to do. And he had several duties of his own to see to, for Merry’s sake.
But a couple of days out from the Forsaken Inn, Merry’s pony, Stybba, had thrown a shoe, and the need to go carefully in order to avoid laming the pony had added another two days to the journey. Still, they had consoled themselves with the knowledge that the little hamlet that had grown up where the Inn stood boasted a blacksmith.
The three hobbits had finally arrived late last night, weary and worn. The first thing Frodo had done on awakening was to ask the innkeeper about the blacksmith.
Only to be told that said blacksmith had not yet returned from Bree.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Baggins, but when Tam got back to Bree, he found his old master was laid up a couple of weeks, so he sent a message back here that he’d be delayed--he thought to stay long enough to see him back on his feet again.
Frustration and guilt tugged at him. He had been quite selfish in taking this journey, now, so close to Merry’s wedding! But he had so wanted his cousins’ company--and he knew it wouldn’t have been fair to take Merry away afterwards--if he would have even gone. But he’d been so confident in his ability to get them all back in plenty of time. Well, Gandalf had told him once that pride went before a fall, and he supposed that this was his due. But it was horribly unfair to Merry. He dreaded telling him.
Merry’s reaction, however, was not quite what Frodo expected. “It’s not a problem, Frodo. We’ll stay over one day--that will make it two weeks, and the blacksmith will return, and we’ll start back. If we push it, we can still make it back in time for me to be there a few days before the wedding.”
Frodo shook his head. “What if the he doesn’t return in a day or two? What then?”
“It’s simple enough. I’ll leave Stybba here with you and Pippin, and I’ll borrow Sable and head out on my own.”
Frodo exchanged a glance with Pippin, who’d so far kept silent. Both of them shook their heads.
“No,” Pippin said firmly. “Together we are safe enough. But our experience here on the journey out should be warning that no hobbit should be travelling alone on these roads. The Goatleafs were probably not the only Ruffians hereabouts. You won’t be borrowing Sable.”
“Nor Strider,” said Frodo firmly. “You don’t go by yourself.”
Now Merry *did* start to look alarmed. “But Estella will be worried.”
“Not to mention Rosamunda,” said Pippin cheerfully. “But why not take your own advice from the start. We’ve at least a day before we need fret.”
Both Frodo and Merry gave Pippin a look of disbelief. But Pippin just grinned. “Now Cousins! No use in fretting on an empty stomach. Why don’t we see what our good host has for breakfast. You did notice by the way that this inn is not forsaken any longer?”
Though they recognized the attempt to cheer them up and change the subject, they decided to go along with Pippin. “So, did they decide to call it ‘The Cat and Fiddle’?” asked Merry.
“No, it’s ‘The King’s Rest’ right enough!” He chuckled, and called to the young innkeeper. “Mr. Rushlight! I thought that you had decided that would not work as a name, since the King never rested here!”
He grinned at them with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, I had a little talk with Mr. Mellor, the Ranger fellow, and he told me as how when the King was still Strider the Ranger his own self, he often camped out here. So I guess that we was wrong about that!”
“And was your wife very disappointed?” asked Frodo.
He chuckled. “Not after I promised to buy her a length of new woolen cloth the next time we are in Bree!”
Merry arched a brow at him. “Ah! Perhaps I should ask you for advice--my cousins here are both bachelors, but I am about to enter the married state at Midsummer!”
“Well, congratulations, Mr. Brandybuck,” the innkeeper beamed. “And what advice would that be?”
“How angry is my betrothed likely to be if I am not in time to sit for the gifts before the wedding? I am afraid this delay will mean we are cutting it a bit fine.”
Before Mr. Rushlight could reply, Frodo said “My cousin has the notion that he should take one of our ponies and ride on ahead alone!”
The innkeeper looked Merry in the eye. “If your lass is at all fond of you--as I think she must be, if you are getting married--she would be *more* angry at you endangering yourself than she would be if you was a day or two late.”
Merry subsided. “Everyone’s against me,” he muttered. But he appeared willing to accept the consensus. “Let us just hope that the blacksmith *does* arrive tomorrow.”
The heat outside was oppressive, but inside the inn was cool enough. They were the only travellers staying there, and so had the common room to themselves. Merry and Pippin amused themselves with games of draughts, sitting in the large bayed window, and Frodo took himself to a quiet corner with his notes, hoping to work a bit on setting them in order for his book.
He’d had very good fortune among the records kept at Rivendell. Among the documents he had been able to examine was a copy of the original charter granted to Marco and Blancho for the settling of the Shire, a copy of a letter from Aranarth, the first Chieftain of the Dúnadain to Bucca of the Marish, acknowledging and affirming the choice made by the hobbits of the Shire to make him the first Thain. In addition, he had found a large ledger, into which had been filed years of reports from various Rangers who had kept watch over the Shire. It was a rich lode of material from which to draw, and it was going to be a long and fascinating task to bring it all into a coherent whole.
He was deep in thought, letting the homely sounds of the inn wash over him as he perused his notes. There was the cheerful sound of singing from the kitchen, where the innkeeper’s wife was cooking something that smelled delicious. He could hear birdsong through the windows, and the amused bickering of his cousins at their game. They did seem to enjoy an argument, if they had nothing else to occupy their time.
So absorbed was he that he was completely taken aback when Pippin shouted out, “Hoy! Look who’s here!” leaping from the window seat so abruptly as to send the draughts set flying. Merry was right behind him.
Frodo stood, alarmed. What on earth? Then he heard the shouts of “Legolas! Gimli!” and the music of Elven laughter, and the boom of Dwarvish laughter, and he too was flying into the inn’s yard.
After a round of excited greetings, Frodo stood back, shaking his head in amazement. “How do you come to be here?”
Legolas gave an elegant shrug. “Why, we stopped in Rivendell, on our way to Buckland for a dear friend’s wedding!”
“Imagine our surprise,” said Gimli, “when Gandalf told us that if we hurried we could, perhaps catch up with you on the road.”
“The wedding is still on, is it not?” asked Legolas.
“Of course it is!” said Merry indignantly.
But Frodo had seen the twinkle of mischief in the Elf’s eyes. “He’s teasing you Merry. If he’s been in Rivendell, he knows all about it.”
“Yet we do not know,” said Gimli, “why we have caught up with you here! We did not expect to draw even with you before Bree. You should be much further along by now.”
Frodo sighed. “We have a bit of a dilemma. Merry’s pony threw a shoe along the way. And we had expected to find a blacksmith here. But he’s gone and won’t be back until tomorrow or perhaps even the next day.”
“Is that all?” asked Gimli. “Well, it has been many a year since I shod a pony, but I do believe that I can still remember the skill.”
Frodo broke out into a delighted smile, and Merry gave a whoop of joy.
“Is there a place I can do the work? I assume there *is* a smithy, if there is usually a smith here.”
“Let us go and ask the innkeeper if we may use the smithy!” said Frodo.
“Good! Good! If we can get it done this afternoon, we might all be able to leave in the morning.” Gimli rubbed his hands together. Shoeing a pony might not be quite so interesting as making a sword, but it would be nice to get his hands on a hammer and tongs again.
“That’s all very well,” said Pippin, “but don’t tell me you mean to start before luncheon!”
“Never fear,” said Legolas. “That Dwarf is as firm as a hobbit about his mealtimes.”
The innkeeper was certain that the smith would not mind Gimli using his shop and tools in his absence, and the friends shared a jolly luncheon of cold roast chicken, fresh bread, cheese and fruit.
After lunch, Frodo and Merry accompanied Gimli to the smithy, while Pippin went off for a stroll with Legolas. Merry smirked at Frodo. “They’ll probably end up in a tree somewhere.”
Frodo nodded. He knew that was probably true. “Yes, and probably singing or playing their pipes.” While all of those who had been in the Company that set out from Rivendell had become as close as family, Frodo knew that Legolas and Pippin seemed to have more in common than anyone would have expected of an Elf and a hobbit.
Merry led Stybba to the smithy, and Frodo helped his cousin in trimming the hoof. It was Stybba’s left foreleg, and he stood patiently for the hobbits, enduring the procedure with aplomb.
Meanwhile, Gimli fired the forge, and found a blank pony shoe. “We will leave payment to the smith with the innkeeper for the use of his tools and materials,” the Dwarf said. Merry took the bellows, and soon the sound of hammer and anvil rang out.
Frodo stood back with the pony and watched. He found it fascinating to see Gimli work--he had never seen him do so, like this. Of course he had watched him hone his weapons or those of others. And he knew that the Dwarf, like many--though by no means all--of his people was a skilled smith. But he had never seen him actually working at the anvil before. It was an impressive sight. He handled the Man-sized tools with little difficulty, holding them closer, perhaps, than their owner would have. There was an expression of fierce joy on his rugged features, as he attained the proper rhythm for his work.
Merry soon took off his shirt, in the heat of the forge. For the first time since his return, Frodo felt a bit of unease--as hot as it was, still he was hesitant to take his own shirt off, for even with the use of Vilya at full strength, Elrond had been unable to erase most of his scars. Yet he knew that both Merry and Gimli had seen his scars before, at their worst, and that they each had their own scars. Shaking his head at his own folly, he took his shirt off as well, feeling just a bit defiant as he did so--though who or what he was defying was uncertain.
Gimli did not seem to notice the heat, and kept his own shirt on.
Soon Stybba was shod, and he seemed to be glad of it. Frodo took out a pocket handkerchief and wiped his brow, and then put his shirt back on, as did Merry. He smiled at Gimli. “It looks as though we are done in time for tea!”
The five friends were up and ready to make an early start the next morning, in spite of having made very merry the night before, talking, laughing and reminiscing.
Frodo was very relieved. He had not looked forward to facing Estella and Rosamunda and Esmeralda if he had delivered Merry late for the wedding.
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