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The Time of Probing  by Larner


            Frodo lay atop a high table, barely cushioned by a thin mattress, his shirt removed and the scar where he'd been stabbed now an ugly color.  His face was white, his lips blue-grey, a greenish tinge to the skin below his eyes. His eyes were not fully closed, but there was no question that he was anything but awake.

            "He yet breathes, and even now fights the effects of the shard from that cursed knife," Strider was saying to the dark-haired Elf who leaned down to examine that scar.  The hilt of the Morgul knife lay upon a wooden tray--the Elf had obviously examined it but briefly before shifting his attention to Mr. Frodo.  Gandalf now leaned over the tray, his bright, dark eyes taking in every detail to be discerned in the making of the abhorrent thing, his lips set with the concern he obviously felt.

            "There is no question as to the evil intent behind the use of this," pronounced the Wizard, indicating the hilt but plainly refusing to touch it.  "They clearly desired to bring him into their world, forcing him to surrender the Ring to them that they might deliver It to their Lord, and to see him tortured by knowing It now rested in Its proper place upon Sauron's finger."

            "Could they truly do that--draw him into their world, I mean?" asked Merry, his face nearly as pale as Frodo's own at the thought of it.  He stood nearby beside Pippin and another Hobbit, an Elf woman behind them, her hands resting on Pippin's shoulders.

            Elrond raised his eyes briefly.  "Yes, that could indeed happen.  We have seen it before."  He returned his attention to Frodo, and the other Hobbit gave a pain-filled gasp.

            Sam gave the other Hobbit a surprised look.  "Mr. Bilbo?  You're here?"

            Bilbo Baggins gave a stiff nod, his attention still focused on his younger kinsman.  "Yes--I have settled here.  I never dreamed that I could have left him in such danger, Sam.  If I had even imagined what ring it was...."  He couldn't finish.  The woman moved her right hand to the top of his head.

            Strider had his attention fixed on Elrond.  "We cannot allow the shard to take him, Ada.  Whatever I can do to aid you, you can be certain that I will."

            "You need to bathe and rest first.  You will be of no use while you go unrested, ion nín."

            "How am I to rest while he lies in danger, Ada?  The safety of all Middle Earth lies in his pocket!"  Then, as the Lord of Rivendell stood shaking his head, Strider continued, "I must help as I can.  You must needs understand--I have sworn myself to his protection!"

            Elrond went still with surprise and dismay.   "You keep binding yourself to others as if you were free to do so, Aragorn son of Arathorn, as if your life were merely your own."  Strider didn't answer, and at last Elrond sighed, his hand stroking Mr. Frodo's brow.  "And why I would expect you, of all people, to be considerate for your own safety I could not say.  Ever your thought is for others, even when it is anything but the best for yourself."  He looked down to examine Frodo's face.  "We can do nothing more until tomorrow.  He needs to know rest in comfort, and to take in as much in the way of fluids as is possible through tonight.  And I must determine how close to his heart the shard has come, and how best to fetch it out of him.  Go, bathe, eat, and rest.  We shall search the wound first at dawn.  And I shall not be surprised if it shall prove it must be searched more than once ere we find the cursed thing."

            Strider stayed where he was, and Sam was uncertain whether to describe his expression as determined or stubborn.  "Do you not intend to sing over him, and to bathe him?  I am not the only one who has known but quick washes as we camped by streams, Ada."

            Now Elrond appeared amused and exasperated in equal parts, and he turned his attention to the woman.  "Go, have Meliangiloreth prepare a child's bath for this one, and summon all capable of singing to his comfort.  What room is prepared for him?"

            "The one nearest this wing, Ada, with the image of Lady Estë on the headboard.  I thought it best."

            He smiled.  "An excellent choice, beloved.  Have all gather there--it should prove large enough.  We shall sing as he is bathed.  Go, then, sell nín."

            Soon all were gathered in a large chamber nearby where a huge bed lay warmly prepared and a cheerful fire shone on the hearth.  Two Elves bore in a copper bath and set it near the fireplace, and others brought in vessels filled with water both cold and still steaming from having come fresh off the boil.  Elrond supervised the preparation of the bath, at one point directing Strider to cast into it leaves from the kingsfoil plant.  Frodo, stripped of his filthy and damaged clothing, was carefully settled into the warm water, cushioned by folded toweling under him and behind his head from the unyielding metal.  Elrond gave Gandalf a look whose meaning Sam could not interpret, and together Elven Lord and the Wizard set their fingertips into the water, and the gathered Elves and Strider and Gandalf began to sing.  Strider indicated with a significant look that Sam should take his place on one side of the bath, and the Ranger knelt opposite him, and between them they saw Frodo Baggins cleansed.  Now and then now dirty water was dipped out and replaced with warm from a large kettle that was kept hanging over the fire, and once Strider lifted Frodo out altogether so that the water and toweling could be completely replaced.

            How thin and vulnerable Frodo seemed when at last he was lifted out again and wrapped in clean, warm towels and laid upon the bed.  Gandalf, Elrond, and Strider laid their right hands upon Frodo, Strider upon the Hobbit's belly, Elrond over his heart and chest, and the Wizard across Frodo's forehead as the singing continued.  One song was repeated several times, and the third time through Pippin, who was clever at such things, joined in.  By the fifth repetition Mr. Bilbo, Merry, and Sam were singing, too. 

            It was quite a mixed group singing over the unconscious Hobbit, Sam realized.  One Elf's hands and face were blackened with soot, and Sam judged him to be a smith.  A thin Elf woman's fingers were as stained with ink as Frodo's own tended to be when he'd been busy with his copying or translations, and there was a smear of vermillion across her cheek.  Another wore an apron covered with a fine dusting of flour, while Glorfindel stood so elegantly nearby, his right hand lying atop the grip of his sword as if he would draw it to Frodo's protection the instant it might be needed.  The woman who'd stood by Merry, Pippin, and old Bilbo was perhaps the most beautiful woman Sam had ever seen, and he noted with surprise that she had a threaded needle and a scattering of pins thrust through a fold of her upper sleeve, just as his mother had done when she must leave off her sewing to see to a more mundane but needful task before returning to her handwork.  The Elf who'd led Merry and Pippin into Elrond's home played upon a beautifully wrought harp, and the groom who'd taken charge of Bill stood near the doorway smelling of clean hay and healthy horseflesh.

            As they sang, Frodo began to relax into a proper sleep, his eyelids fluttering slightly before closing normally, and he turned his face slightly to the right in search of a more comfortable position.  Sam felt the knot in his stomach ease, and noted triumphant and pleased looks on the faces of all.  He saw Strider's expression relax, and now saw clearly the exhaustion the Man must feel.  Yes, he desperately needed that bath, meal, and rest Master Elrond had been urging on him!

            At last Elrond straightened, signaling the end of the singing.  He murmured soft words of thanks, and the Elves began to disperse.  Those who'd brought the bath had already tipped its contents off the balcony, and one of the women had gathered the used towels all into a basket and carried them away while another cleaned up the drips with one from the stack of clean ones left on the wash stand.

            Between them Elrond and Strider were drawing an oversized nightshirt over Frodo's head, conversing quietly in Elvish the while.  The towels that had been under Frodo were surrendered to the woman who'd cleaned up the drips, and she left with them and Frodo's soiled clothing.  Those soft, thick coverings were drawn up to Frodo's chin, and at last, at a word from Master Elrond, the woman with the pins on her sleeve drew Strider out of the room, hopefully to bathe, eat, and rest as he'd been directed.

            Bilbo Baggins sat in a large, comfortable chair near the bed, his feet resting upon a padded settle, and Gandalf stood now by his side, turning his unlit pipe between his hands, watching Elrond's face from under his bushy brows.  "We shall meet in the morning so that you can search the wound?" he asked.

            "Yes.  I shall have the table brought in along with my instruments just ere dawn."

            "What has become of the Ring?"

            Elrond shrugged dismissively.  "It lies upon the second tray in the examination room, swathed in silk to isolate and ward against Its evil influence.  I deem it advisable to shield him from It until the shard is removed from his body."

            The Wizard was already shaking his head.  "He may not be able to tolerate being separated from It," he cautioned.  "When I took It from him to test It in his parlor fire the distress he felt was far greater than I had anticipated.  It had already begun taking control of him, even though he assured me he had never used it even as Bilbo had to hide him from the Sackville-Bagginses."

            Elrond gave Gandalf a concerned glance, and led the Wizard back to the room where he'd examined Frodo.  Not certain why, Sam followed them.  An Elf whose hair appeared almost white sat on a gracefully carved stool near the door, his attention fixed warily on a cloth-covered tray sitting on a tall, narrow serving table against the far wall.  He looked up with relief as his Lord entered the room.  "You will set another to watch over this, Master?  I am glad!  I fear Its influence, for already I hear It speaking in my heart, tempting me.  I beg you, send me out of Its presence!"

            Sam realized then that even powerful Elf lords can blanch!


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