Summary: Frodo and Aragorn (Estel) meet and become unlikely friends. Pre-LOTR. Um…probably AU.
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters and make no money from them.
Frodo crept along the seemingly impenetrable hedge until he spied the gap, barely big enough to allow him to squirm through. He knew he could do it, since he had done it several times before. Sneaking through the hedge was easier than asking the grim Ranger who guarded the one real opening to the hedge for permission.
Despite years of listening to Bilbo’s tales and enjoying Gandalf’s visits, Frodo was not comfortable interacting with Men, especially not Rangers, who looked fierce and grim. Bilbo had often told Frodo that these were good Men, sent to protect the Shire, but Frodo could not help but fear their size, their ruthless weapons, the harshness of their voices.
A few weeks earlier, Frodo had discovered that these rangers had a lodge just over the border to the Shire, and that on the wooded property of this lodge the best mushrooms in existence grew plentifully. Frodo was somewhat embarrassed, as he was no longer a young orphan rascal of Brandy Hall. A rough beating from Farmer Maggot over twelve years earlier should have taught him a lesson he’d never forget. Besides, now he lived with Bilbo, and he should show more decorum than to crawl in the dirt, pilfering mushrooms.
Well, just this once, and then he’d never come back. Despite having come to Brandy Hall for a week’s visit, he was camping alone along the Brandywine, pleased to get away from his many relatives for one night.
As he wriggled through the hedge, he kept his eyes on the tall Ranger. He was not certain what the Man would do if he caught him, but he looked grim enough that Frodo was not willing to take chances. He didn’t think the ranger would shoot him, as they knew hobbits were not foes. But he may be taken to prison, and the very idea made his throat close in fear.
He made it through the hedge, climbed to his feet, and crept toward the wooded area where he had found the mushrooms earlier that week. Such delicious, succulent mushrooms he had never before tasted! The last time he had raided the Ranger’s property, he had a made a pie out of the mushrooms for Bilbo, and Bilbo had declared it the best in the Shire.
So proud was Frodo of his hobbit-like stealth, that he failed to watch where his feet were falling, and he tripped over a branch, landing on his stomach. He quickly scrambled to his feet and broke into a frantic run.
“You!” The ranger shouted. “Stop!” Frodo’s heart banged as he ran blindly forward. If he could reach the woods, he could easily hide! The heavy footfalls of the Ranger quickly closed the distance. Frodo simply didn’t have the speed or skill to match a ranger.
“Stop right now!”
Frodo tripped again and went sprawling. There was no time to get up, so he rolled over and pushed his back against a tree, wishing the tree would swallow him.
The Ranger crawled toward him. “What’s this? A halfling?”
He gripped Frodo’s arm and forced him to his feet. His face was grim, his eyes black and merciless as he stared down at Frodo.
Frodo’s throat filled with cold terror. He was in deep, deep trouble. “Please,” he gasped weakly. “I’m very sorry.”
“Why are you loitering on this property?” the Ranger demanded, but Frodo could not speak. His lips felt numb, and he could not think of anything that would satisfy this Man.
“Speak!” The Ranger shook Frodo’s arm, his eyes piercing and ruthless.
“I’m sorry,” Frodo said. His skin felt too tight, and a cold, heavy weight pressed on his chest. He blinked a tear away. He had never wept in front of anyone other than Bilbo before, but then again, he had never faced anything this frightening. The Man’s hand around Frodo’s slender arm was so large and powerful, the grip painful. “I don’t know.”
“You can’t tell me why you crawled through the hedge?” His voice was nearly mocking, and when Frodo didn’t answer, he softened the tone of his voice. “What’s your name?”
“Frodo. Frodo Baggins,” Frodo said miserably. “Please, sir, let me go. I’m very sorry. I’ll not come again.”
“Frodo, my name is Elmond, and I’m going to need to take you to the lodge.”
“No,” Frodo said, looking up at the man, blinking his tear-filled eyes in rapid alarm. He wrenched his arm, trying to twist out of the Man’s grip. “No, let me go!”
A wild panic took him, and he thrashed in all directions, kicking Elmond’s shins, striking at him with his free hand, still trying to twist out of his grip. Elmond dropped to his knees and seized both of Frodo’s upper arms, pushing them to his sides until the hobbit could no longer move.
“Calm down, calm down *now*, you hear? There, that’s better. Now, here is the situation. I am required to bring any trespasser to Formir, as he is the one I report to for duty. Now, is anyone expecting you at home? You seem a long way from any village.”
Frodo shook his head miserably. “I was…I was camping…They won’t expect me…not until tomorrow evening.” He tried to stop it, but a tear ran down his face.
Elmond nodded quickly. “I’m going to have to blindfold you, as nobody is to know where our lodge is.”
Frodo’s chest was tight as he tried to get in enough breath. “Am I in trouble?”
“Formir does not like trespassers.”
The idea of encountering Formir made an icy block sink into Frodo’s stomach.
“He can be ruthless,” Elmond continued. “Last trespasser was lashed within an inch of his life.” Frodo paled, and Elmond laughed. “I doubt he’d do that to you. He does have a soft spot for the Shirefolk.”
Frodo tried desperately to calm the battering of his heart as Elmond placed a black cloth over his eyes and pushed him forward, keeping his hands on Frodo’s shoulders.
They did not walk for long before he heard Elmond push open a creaking door. The blindfold was yanked off, and Frodo let out a terrified gasp. His face turned hot and then broke into cold sweat.
The room, mostly bare except for a few wooden tables and stools, was filled with grim Men with weapons, all dressed in a similar fashion to Elmond. Most stared at Frodo in quiet curiosity.
Frodo looked up at Elmond, his blue eyes shining with terror, breathing quickly. His vision dimmed, and a wave of dizziness overcame him. From a distance, he caught the whiff of stale blood, perhaps from a gutted animal, and it sent a wave of nausea through him, causing his legs to give out. Elmond caught him as he sank to the ground in a faint.
Frodo woke cold to the bone. He was lying on a hard floor, his cloak bunched under his head as a pillow. He was alone inside what appeared to be a storage room of some kind. There were only two tiny windows, high up the wall. Frodo immediately remembered the ranger’s lodge, the iron grip of Elmond, the harsh laughter and weapons, and how far from home he was. This was far worse than getting caught by Farmer Maggot. What if Bilbo was wrong? What if these Rangers were not here to protect the Shire? What if they killed him for sport, and he never saw Bilbo or his baby cousin Pippin or his other little cousin Merry again?
The door creaked open, and Frodo shrank against the wall, shaking in cold and terror. A Man, different from Elmond, crawled toward him, holding his hands out to indicate that he meant no harm. “Shh…” he said. “It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you. Frodo, is it?”
Frodo let his head fall on his knees, unable to keep a sob from escaping his throat. “I am sorry,” he said. “Please let me go…I promise you’ll never see me again.”
“Listen,” the Man said. “I am called Estel, and none of us means you harm. I will take you back to the Shire as soon as Formir talks to you.”
“He…will he?…Elmond says that he lashed the last person…I know I must seem like a coward, but I’ve never experienced--”
Estel’s face darkened with anger. “I will have words with Elmond. Formir will not lash you. But can you tell me what you were doing on this property?”
Frodo swallowed several times. “I…” He lifted his head and looked through wet eyes at the Ranger with the kind gray eyes. “It is very shameful, Estel.”
“It is better if you say it.” Estel scooted against the wall so that he was sitting next to Frodo.
“In the woods just behind your lodge you have mushrooms. I am ashamed that I have thieved them from you.” Frodo looked up, his eyes wide with shame and fear. “But I can pay you for them, if I can be allowed to go home.”
“Mushrooms,” Estel said, a puzzled pucker in his forehead. Then suddenly he began to laugh. Frodo watched him in cautious puzzlement. “Oh, dear. Of course. I know all about how much hobbits love mushrooms!”
Frodo felt a rush of warmth for this Man, who spoke in a kind voice and seemed to understand something about hobbits. Frodo managed a tentative smile, and Estel squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “Do not fear, Frodo.”
Formir stepped into the room, a large man with long dark hair and a dour expression. Frodo wiped his face with his sleeve, but it was filthy from crawling through the hedge, and the dirt streaked over his teary face.
“So this is our trespasser?”
“Formir, this is Frodo,” Estel said, putting his arm reassuringly around Frodo’s shoulder.
“Let him speak for himself, Estel. Frodo, is it?”
Frodo nodded, though his heart pounded so hard he could barely breathe. This man looked harsher than Elmond, if that were possible.
“Why did you sneak onto our property?”
“I am very sorry,” Frodo said, swallowing. He was going to start weeping again and he was dreadfully ashamed of himself. Normally he had much better control of his emotions, but this was too much. He had never seen so many of the Big People in one area, all with harsh voices, all with weapons taller than Frodo. If he escaped, he would never willingly leave the Shire again.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Formir said. “Now speak!”
Frodo wept in earnest, dropping his head into his knees again, clutching the fabric of his breeches in his knotted fists. He felt Estel’s hand on his back, strong and reassuring.
“Formir,” Estel said quietly. “Please be gentle. This is his first encounter with Men.”
Formir dropped to his knees in front of Frodo. He slid his hand under Frodo’s chin. “Look at me.”
Elmond and Estel had been wrong. This man would not take pity on him. He was going to demand that Frodo be lashed in front of all his men.
Frodo’s hands shook so badly he was not quite sure what to do with them, so he clutched them together.
“Where do you come from, halfling?”
Frodo took several jagged breaths before answering breathlessly. “Hobbiton…but I am visiting my relatives in Buckland.”
“We cannot keep this halfling here,” Estel said. “Let him go. We are meant to protect the Shirefolk, not cause them harm and fear, else we are no better than the creatures from which we protect them.”
Formir dug his fingers into Frodo’s chin to get his attention, and his face became stern. “Do you know what I do to trespassers?”
Frodo shook his head, too terrified to articulate what Elmond had told him.
The Ranger pulled a coiled whip that he had attached to his belt. Frodo shrank back, but he forced himself to steady his breath. If this was his punishment, he would face it bravely. What was the worst that could happen? They were not going to kill him, so whatever they dealt out, he could endure. Still, he could not stop trembling, and only Estel’s steady hand on his shoulder prevented him from collapsing.
“If you are ever caught on our property again, I will not hesitate to use this. Understand?”
Frodo nodded, swallowing several times. Formir released Frodo’s chin and clapped the hobbit on the shoulder before climbing to his feet.
“I will accompany him back to the border,” Estel said. “Come, Frodo.”
Frodo could barely stand, his legs trembled so badly, but Estel gave him a gentle smile which sent new strength through his limbs.
Frodo followed close behind as Estel led him out of the cottage. He kept his eyes lowered, terrified to meet the curious stares of the other rangers.
“We’ll not see you here again, will we, halfling?” Formir’s voice shattered the awkward silence, and Frodo clutched Estel’s sleeve, nearly collapsing to his knees again. He shook his head but did not dare to meet the Man’s gaze. Formir had nothing to worry about. If this was the world of Men, Frodo wanted nothing more to do with it. He would never again even leave Hobbiton. Never had his cozy room in Bag End held so much charm. His heart sank. Whatever would Bilbo think about this? He would be dismayed that Frodo had stolen mushrooms. He would shake his head, *tsking*, and the disappointment in his eyes would break Frodo’s heart. In light of this escapade, Bilbo might even reconsider his decision to adopt!
Frodo’s throat filled with a hard lump, but he would not allow himself to weep until he was far from these Men. They surely already considered him pathetic.
Once Frodo and Estel had stepped out of the cottage, Frodo released his tense grip on Estel’s sleeve. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I feel like a fool for being such a coward, but thank you for being kind.”
“You are not a fool or a coward,” Estel said. “This was not the friendliest first encounter with Men you could have had.” He shook his head. “Nor the worst, I warrant.”
“It won’t happen again.” Frodo managed with a shudder. “No mushrooms are worth that.”
“Will you show me these mushrooms? I would still have you take some home with you.”
Frodo looked up at Estel, his cheeks heating. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. I’ve taken enough --”
Estel laughed, ruffling Frodo’s hair. “This may come as a shock…but we truly have no interest in the mushrooms. They will grow here uneaten if you will not have them.”
“But Formir said--”
Estel shook his head and started walking toward the woods, signaling for Frodo to follow him. “Formir would not hurt you. He has a good heart beneath his rough demeanor. He only meant to frighten you.”
“He succeeded,” Frodo said.
“Truth be told, he fears for your kind. Long have we guarded the borders of your country, but as of late, evil has been gathering with more strength and our tasks have been difficult. There are harmful creatures and men who camp in the woods near the Brandywine. Formir would rather you have a frightening experience with us than with those who would truly do you harm.”
Frodo shivered again. “Then I suppose I do not know as much as I thought about the outside world.”
Frodo followed Estel into the woods, but once there, he easily led the Ranger to where he had collected the mushrooms the last time. Mushrooms spread in generous bunches.
“Do you like it?…Being a ranger, that is?” Frodo asked, plucking gray stems from the dirt. He would wash them when he got home. His mouth watered in anticipation of cooking these delectable treats into a pie again. Now that he was away from the cottage, his shock was fading, and the rangers seemed like a distant nightmare.
Estel smiled again. “Nobody has ever asked me, so I have never considered it. I walk through the wilderness with no company but that of my own thoughts, and mostly I need little else. I am not well liked in villages. Folk look upon me as frightening and suspicious.”
“You?” Frodo laughed, raising his eyebrows. He plucked more mushrooms and put them into a burlap sack. “I cannot imagine that.”
“Well, I have a rather rascally look, do I not?”
“Your eyes are too kind.” Frodo gestured to the mushrooms. “How many may I take?”
“As many as you can carry.” Estel knelt beside Frodo, gazing at the quickly filling burlap sack in curiosity. “Whatever do you hobbits cook with these?”
“Come visit us in Bag End in Hobbiton and you can find out. Bilbo cooks wonderful mushroom pies. I am learning as well.”
“Bilbo…” Estel said thoughtfully. “That name has a familiar ring to it.”
“Bilbo is very well traveled. He has been all over the world, and he’s the only hobbit known in the Shire that has gone farther than the village of Bree. Perhaps you have seen him in your travels. You can’t miss him. He’s older, dresses well, carries a walking stick…”
Estel laughed. “No, I’ve not seen him that I can remember.”
“What do you do for enjoyment?” Frodo suddenly asked, standing. The burlap bag was stretched to its limit.
“Fun?” Estel began walking again, signaling Frodo to follow. “You are a curious sort, Frodo.”
“Surely you take enjoyment sometimes.”
“This is not a time when I can afford such a luxury as fun.”
“That is very sad,” Frodo said, struggling to catch up to Estel’s long strides. “For you are just the sort that deserves enjoyment.”
Estel smiled grimly but said nothing. They walked in silence until they reached the hedge where Frodo had gotten caught by Elmond what seemed like an age earlier.
“It is very late, Frodo.” Estel said, his voice soft with concern. “Do you remember where you set up your camp?”
“Yes.” Frodo felt a lump fill his throat. He liked Estel quite a bit and had hoped for more opportunity to talk to him. That was unlikely, as Estel would probably never come to the Shire and Frodo would never again leave it. “I can make it from here. I hate to bother you more than I already have.”
“There is a feel to the night that I don’t like,” Estel said, looking around, his gray eyes keen with vigilance. “I will walk a little farther with you.”
“What do you mean?” Frodo asked in alarm, but Estel only beckoned him to follow.
Frodo trotted after him in puzzlement. He could not understand the grim mood that Estel had fallen into, but he was glad that he could walk a little farther with his new friend. Estel seemed tense, so Frodo did not press him for more conversation. Perhaps when they reached the border, Frodo would gather his courage and invite him in earnest to Hobbiton for tea. Bilbo would enjoy having him as a guest. Since they often hosted Gandalf and a variety of dwarves, nobody would think it strange if he hosted one of the Big Folk.
When they reached the cluster of woods in which Frodo had camped, Frodo opened his mouth to tell Estel, but Estel gripped his arm. “Stay quiet.”
“What is it?” Frodo whispered.
“Not another word.” They stood frozen for several minutes. Frodo could not hear anything, but the back of his neck prickled, and he did not dare breathe.
Suddenly he heard raucous laughter. Frodo looked up at Estel in alarm. Estel’s eyes hardened, becoming as unyielding as his grip on Frodo’s arm. He drew his sword. Frodo had never seen such a huge weapon unsheathed. He bent down so that he could whisper in Frodo’s ear.
“Follow close, don’t make a sound, and do exactly as I say. Understand?”
Frodo nodded, his throat dry, his heart battering. He had experienced too many shocks this evening. He followed Estel, impressed by the Man’s ability to move nearly as quietly as a hobbit. Frodo could walk soundlessly if he desired but he had always believed that a Big Person could always be heard miles away because of their clomping, heavy steps. They reached the brush and thick squat trees that surrounded the tiny clearing where Frodo had set up his camp. Estel gripped Frodo’s shoulder and pushed him so that they were both crouching out of sight.
Three Men sat in the clearing around a fire. They had ransacked Frodo’s belongings, stealing what they wanted, flinging the rest in every direction. Frodo trembled so wildly that he feared his movement would give their hiding place away. If Estel hadn’t decided to walk farther with him, he would have come alone, unaware of danger. And somehow he did not think these rough men would have been as kind as even Formir the Ranger.
Without a word, Estel grasped Frodo’s chin, turning him to face him. He signaled for Frodo to wait. Frodo nodded, clutching his arms together. Estel released him and barged into the clearing, sword thrust out before him.
“Hoy, what’s this?” one of the ruffians shouted, jumping to his feet.
Estel pointed his sword at him. “This is not your camp. You have one minute to clear out.” His voice was cold and merciless, and Frodo shivered.
“Naw,” the ruffian said in irritation. “This ain’t none of your business. Some little Shire rat abandoned it. Finders keepers, we say.”
His friend fondled a knife and looked at Estel with no fear. “And if he comes back, we’ll take him, too. Alaron always wants a halfling or two. Best slave labor in the world, those ratlings. Too helpless and afraid to say no to nothing.”
“You now have less than 30 seconds to be gone from this clearing,” Estel said. Frodo cringed. Would Estel start stabbing them? Frodo had never seen death up close — he had never even seen his parents after they died, and the prospect of bloodshed now turned his stomach cold. The third ruffian, who had not yet spoken, bolted from the campsite, tearing through the brush, passing just a few mere feet from where Frodo hid.
The other two ruffians sprang to their feet, ready to fight.
Frodo fumbled to free one of the knives attached to Estel’s bag, and once he succeeded, his hand curled around the hilt. The last ruffian had come too close for comfort. Holding the knife made Frodo feel safer as Estel easily subdued one of the ruffians by striking him unconscious. The second ruffian was quicker than Estel had anticipated, and before Frodo could cry out a warning, strong arms locked around Estel’s neck. Frodo watched in terror as Estel dropped his sword and clutched at the ruffian’s thick arms, struggling to breathe.
The ruffian dragged them both down to the ground. In his left hand, he had a blade and he stabbed at Estel, who twisted out of the way each time. Frodo clutched Estel’s knife with trembling, sweaty palms. He had to do something. If something wasn’t done soon, Estel would likely die at this ruffian’s hands.
Taking a deep breath, Frodo clutched the knife and ran into the clearing. He jumped on the two Men, who still struggled on the ground, and held the point of the knife at the ruffian’s throat. Estel’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Release him,” Frodo said, painfully aware of how small and terrified his voice sounded. “Or I’ll cut your throat.”
At the sight of the fierce halfling with the knife, the ruffian loosened his grip on Estel. Estel lost no time. He twisted around like a trapped snake, and Frodo was flung off of him to the ground on his back, the wind knocked out of him. In seconds, the ruffian lay still, his throat slit. Frodo propped himself up on his elbows, staring in breathless disbelief at how quickly it had all happened.
Frodo’s breath returned, and he stared at the ruffian’s unseeing eyes and the blood bubbling out of his throat.
“Frodo, do not look,” Estel said gently. Frodo suddenly noticed that Estel was clutching his side and that blood, *his* blood, was seeping through his hands.
“You’re hurt!” Frodo cried, running to him and falling to his knees beside him.
“Yes,” Estel managed a pained smile. “But thanks to you, I’m not dead. I owe you all my gratitude, Shire friend. That was a very brave and risky thing you did. He might have killed us both.”
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Frodo said, staring in fear at the wound. “You are bleeding heavily.” He wriggled out of his vest and folded it several times. “Take this.” He pushed Estel’s hand out of the way and pushed the cloth against the wound.
“That will work,” Estel nodded. He was getting so pale. “Now please get my bag so we can get some rope. We’ll need to secure the bandage. It’s a long way back to the cottage.”
“Nonsense,” Frodo said. “You’ll never make it back there. I must take you to my home.”
“Hobbiton’s not any closer,” Estel said as Frodo ran behind the brush to find Estel’s bag. It was heavier than he had anticipated, and he marveled at the Man’s strength that he could carry such a load on his back wherever he went. He dragged it into the clearing to where Estel still sat, holding Frodo’s now bloody vest over his wound.
The first ruffian, only unconscious, groaned loudly, and Frodo jumped, looking at Estel in alarm.
“He’ll not fully wake until we’re gone.”
“Buckland’s only but a few miles from here,” Frodo said, digging in the bag for the rope. “We must go there.”
“I will not bring more danger to the Shire.”
“You won’t.” Frodo found the rope, and Estel took it from him. Frodo held the vest in place while Estel tied the rope around his waist to secure it.
“And don’t worry,” Frodo said with a mischievous smile. “I won’t subject you to my relatives in Brandy Hall. You’d rather take your chances bleeding to death than that. I know, having lived there for ten years! There’s a cottage belonging to distant cousins who are visiting in Bree for the summer. One of my friends takes care of it while they’re gone.”
“Then let us go,” Estel said. He struggled to stand, and Frodo watched him sway with alarm. What would he do if Estel collapsed? He could not carry him. Well, the least he could do was try his best to drag Estel’s bag. If he could stick a knife to a Man’s throat, he could surely handle that relatively small task.
“I’m sorry…I’m too heavy,” Estel gasped. He could no longer walk on his own, and he had slipped one arm around Frodo’s shoulders as he stumbled alongside him. Frodo clung to Estel’s hand, doing his best to bear the weight of both the pack and Estel, though it seemed it was only pure will that kept him going. He had ceased to feel the muscles in his legs and back. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other.
“We…we don’t have far.” Frodo could not talk and bear this strain to his body at the same time.
“Lay me down here.” Estel stopped, struggling to adjust his weight so that not so much of it pressed down on the hobbit. “Fetch some help. This is too much for you alone.”
“No.” Frodo shook his head firmly, though his vision swam. “I’ll not leave…you alone…less than…mile…up road.”
The cottage may have been less than a mile but it seemed much longer. Part of it was uphill, and several times Frodo nearly gave up, nearly collapsing to his knees. But he knew if he did that, he’d never get up. He would not be able to rouse himself, much less the two of them. And he would never let Estel lie alone on the side of the road, bleeding and hurt. He squared his chin and continued, trying to bite back desperate gasps and groans.
Finally, the little cottage near Crickhollow that Fatty Bolger was looking after came into view. The modest hole was nearly invisible, built into the side of a hill with a door painted nearly the same color as the grass. “We’re here,” he said in a weak gasp. Estel did not answer. It was all he could do to force his feet to move.
Frodo let Estel sink to the ground in front of the cottage and knocked on the door. “Fatty!” What he would do if Fatty Bolger were not home, he was not sure. He certainly could not lift Estel. He would have to drag him, and at this point, he was not sure he had the strength to do that.
“Yes?” His old friend peered out, and Frodo’s knees weakened with relief. It was dark, and Fatty could not see the unconscious ranger. “Frodo! You came back early! They said you were not to be back for a few more days.”
“Yes, I’m back,” Frodo said. “And I need your help. I’ve got one of the Big Folk with me, and he’s hurt.”
“Big Folk?” Fatty asked in alarm. “Is he dangerous?”
Frodo laughed wearily. “Do not fear. He’s very kind, but he’s badly injured, but I owe him much. If not for him, I might be dead now.”
“What?” Fatty looked incredulous as he opened the door, peering out into the front garden.
“No time to explain now.” He sighed deeply, his sore muscles trembling. “I suppose we don’t have a bed long enough for a Big Person.”
“We could scoot two together.”
Frodo nodded. Of course that was the logical solution, and he should have thought if it himself, but for the fogginess of his brain. His head felt light, and he hoped he would not faint before they got Estel settled. “I will leave Estel out there until we have a place ready for him to sleep.”
“You look a fright, Frodo – your clothes wrinkled and filthy. It seems you’ve had adventures beyond our imaginings! Will you not tell me more?”
Frodo managed a tired smile. “It’s a long tale which I’ll tell you when we have Estel in bed.”
“Estel,” Fatty said, his tongue stumbling over the delicate sound. “Big Folk certainly have odd names.”
The two hobbits scooted the two beds in the guest room together.
“Do you suppose it’s big enough?” Frodo asked.
“Should be,” Fatty said. “Can’t imagine a creature bigger than this.” He looked wary. “Are you sure he’s not dangerous? My ma said the Big Folk sometimes hunt hobbits for sport.”
Frodo raised his eyebrows at Fatty. “Come, let us fetch Estel. I guarantee he is far too injured to hunt hobbits right now.”
When Fatty and Frodo stepped outside, they found Estel struggling to his feet, groaning miserably.
“Estel,” Frodo said, pulling at his arm. “Do you think you can stand for just a few moments?” He simply could not heave him up, even with Fatty’s help.
Estel groaned again, clutching his wound, and Frodo’s stomach sank as blood seeped between his fingers. He didn’t want to think about how much blood the Ranger had already lost. He didn’t know what he could do for him, even if they were able to get him to bed. He would have to send for the local healer, and Frodo knew he would have much to say about Frodo caring for one of the Big Folk so close to Brandy Hall.
With Fatty and Frodo’s help, Estel staggered to his feet, his mouth in a tight grimace. It was obvious he was using the last remnants of his strength, and he sagged much of his weight on the two hobbits.
Supporting Estel’s weight was much easier with Fatty’s help, but Frodo grunted in relief, his strength utterly gone, when they at last let Estel fall on the bed. Estel was still conscious enough to center himself.
Now that Estel lay bathed in the soft gold light of the lantern, seeing the blood pooled around his wound was like a blow to Frodo’s stomach.
“Fatty,” Frodo said, unable to take his eyes from the wound. “You must send for the healer. He’s still bleeding.”
“The healer?” Fatty still looked shocked, his first close view of one of the Big Folk evident on his round face.
“Do not look at me as if you’ve never heard of a healer. Go now!”
“No!” Estel’s gray eyes were suddenly bright and focused, and he grabbed Frodo’s arm. Fatty yelped and jumped back against the wall.
“What is wrong with the healer?” Frodo asked. “You are hurt!”
“I cannot have any more of your kind know I am here.”
“But we have no healing skills, Estel. And you can surely see you need care.”
“Frodo, I will only bring danger to your Shire. It is very important that nobody else should know I am here. Do you understand? I will talk you through what you must do for me.”
Frodo nodded, his eyes wide with terror. He could not do it, but he had to look as though he could. He had to be brave for Estel.
“Do not fear,” Estel said in a softer tone. “I know you can do it. I only regret I cannot allow you some rest first.”
Frodo nodded. “All right,” he said quietly. “What must I do?”
“First you must clean the wound. The knives used by the ruffians were no doubt filthy. Take off the dirty cloth you gave me. Do not be alarmed if I start to bleed again right away.”
Frodo nodded quickly. “Fatty, please boil some water.”
Fatty nodded and rushed out of the room.
Frodo gingerly reached for his crumpled bloody vest that he had helped tie around Estel’s waist.
“Do not fear,” Estel said softly. “You will not hurt me worse than I am already hurt.”
Frodo nodded and pulled at the vest. He cringed when he heard what sounded like a wet smacking sound.
“Now,” Estel said through gritted teeth. “I’ll need you to clean the wound when Fatty brings the water. It’s not so bad, is it? I’m not bleeding much anymore.”
Frodo pulled back the cloth of Estel’s tunic and bit back a cry of dismay. The knife wound looked ugly indeed—clotted and bloody. Of course, he would not say anything to alarm Estel. “No, not so bad,” he said faintly.
Fatty brought the hot water back into the room, gasping a bit when he saw the wound. Frodo dipped a clean cloth into the pan, wrung the water from it, and rubbed it over the wound. He was not prepared for Estel to grab the sides of the bed, arch his back, and cry out in pain.
“I am sorry!” Frodo cried, stumbling back. He was no healer. He could not do this. “I’ve hurt you…oh, dear! Tell me how to do it correctly!”
“No, no, you’re doing it right,” Estel said with a forced smile. “I’m afraid I am a coward about pain. You must continue as you are doing.”
“A coward?” Frodo managed a nervous laugh. He dabbed the wound again, cringing each time his friend groaned and pulled at the sheets.
Again and again, he dipped the cloth in the hot water, wrung it out, and dabbed it over the wound. At last the wound was clean. Frodo met Estel’s gaze, and the Ranger smiled.
“Now you must pad up my wound.”
“Fatty, get some clean towels,” Frodo said numbly. The room swam before his eyes, but he could not rest.
“You’ve done wonderfully so far,” Estel said with a smile. “I do not know what I’d do if not for your bravery.”
“I’m not brave,” Frodo said, blushing. “What would you have me do, watch you bleed to death?”
Estel laughed. “Brave all the same. I know you must be exhausted. I will survive the night. Go on and wash yourself, Frodo -- and get some rest!”
“But you may need me.”
“If I need you, I will call for you.”
“Are you certain?”
Frodo’s muscles ached terribly, and it was a wonder that he could remain standing. He knew he would be sore beyond reckoning the next day, lucky if he would be able to force himself from bed. He put his hand over Estel’s brow.
“Sleep well then, Estel. You must call if you have any need at all for me.”
Fatty brought in a pitcher of water and fresh biscuits, leaving them on the nightstand within reach of Estel’s hand. “For you, sir, if you decide in the middle of the night that you are hungry.”
“Thank you, both of you,” Estel said. He closed his eyes, and his face looked restful. Only after seeing that he did not seem to be in great pain, Frodo finally felt he could leave the Ranger to sleep and get some rest of his own.
“Will you need more help from me?” Fatty asked. His eyes were aglow, as he had likely never faced so much excitement in his life. Frodo embraced him.
“Dear Fatty, no. You’ve been wonderful.”
“Go right ahead. I think I’ll go home and see how ma is doing. It’ll be nice to have a break from staying in this lonely cottage alone.”
After Fatty left, Frodo walked through every room, blowing out lanterns. He collapsed into bed without washing himself or taking off his clothes. He knew he would sleep like the dead.
When Frodo woke, he could not move. The first movement caused wretched pain to shoot through his muscles, and he cried out. Immediately everything came back to him – the Ranger! Frodo forced himself out of bed. He had never changed out of his filthy clothes, and he smoothed his blood-stained shirt. Sunlight streamed painfully into his eyes. He stretched his muscles, hoping they would loosen. He had breakfast to fix for the incapacitated Ranger, but first he needed to make certain he was all right. He had a blurred and sickening memory of all that blood.
Frodo limped into the room where the Ranger slept and he was surprised and relieved to find him awake and tending to his own wounds.
“You should have called for me!” Frodo said. “Here…allow me to help.”
“You’re quite a sight, Frodo,” the Ranger said. “Why don’t you take a bath and change – I am fine.”
“Unlike you, I can wait.”
Frodo grinned. “I’m so very glad you’re feeling better, Estel. I shall put tea on at least.”
A banging on the door startled both of them. The knock was much too hard for Fatty -- or any other hobbit. Frodo froze, breathing quickly. He had a vision of a band of Rangers showing up and accusing him of kidnapping Estel. He had a vision of the ruffians from the wood coming for their final revenge. He looked around for a weapon, but there were none other than Estel’s, which lay on the bed beside him. Did he dare take one before answering the door? He grabbed instead the poker beside the hearth.
“Will you not answer?” Estel asked, puzzled by Frodo’s fear.
Frodo tried to keep his voice from shaking. “Do you think more men from the forest have found us? That is no hobbit at the door.”
Strider smiled, but he did not look worried at all. “Go peer out first. If you do not recognize the stranger, come to me. I can still fight if I need to.”
Frodo felt ridiculous. After all, he was in the Shire. He blushed hotly at the idea that Estel would no longer think him brave. Estel had been so proud of him for fighting the men in the woods, which had sent him to a giddy high, but now, to look ridiculously frightened of a caller at the door was humiliating.
“I do not think that will be necessary,” Frodo said and trotted to the front door.
Frodo opened the door just a crack. The caller was a Big Person, but he was dressed and cloaked as Aragorn. Indeed, one of the Rangers. When the Man turned at the sound of the door opening, Frodo recognized him as being one of the men from the Ranger’s lodge, and he quickly slammed shut the door, leaning against it, taking in big, gulping breaths. His first fear had come true. The men at the lodge knew that Estel had accompanied Frodo back to the Shire. And now Estel had not returned and was in fact wounded, and the blame would come fully on Frodo. Formir would not be so kind this time.
“Halfling, I need you to open the door,” the Ranger said.
“What do you want?” Frodo asked, and his voice broke.
“Frodo?” Estel called from the other room. “Are you all right?”
The Ranger outside spoke in a more gentle voice. “I am looking for my friend, who accompanied you home last night. Is he here?”
“Yes.” Frodo said. His brow broke into sweat. He wondered what would happen if he was imprisoned by these Rangers, whether they had actual jail cells and how their laws worked.
“Please let me in.”
Frodo opened the door, stepping back, fully resigned to whatever fate was in store for him. The Ranger barely glanced at him as he ducked through the low foyer and called out, “Estel?”
“Back here,” Estel said. “Halbarad!” He spoke the name with obvious joy, and Frodo let out a weak sigh. Perhaps Estel would not allow Halbarad to take Frodo away to be imprisoned. Frodo followed Halbarad back to the room where Estel lay in bed.
“What has happened?” Halbarad asked when he caught sight of Estel’s wounds. He shot Frodo a dark look of accusation.
“Aye, it is a long story.”
“Is this halfling here keeping you prisoner?” It was obvious that Halbarad jested, yet he did not smile. Frodo laughed a little, to relief the ache of fear in his chest.
Estel smiled gently at Frodo. “Yes, but with good intention. He saved my life on two counts yesterday.”
“Nonsense,” Frodo said, blushing.
Halbarad looked at Frodo with new interest. “So you were captured by our men on the border, reprimanded for trespassing—“
“Formir was quite stern,” Strider said with a grin, and Frodo managed a smile. He felt better already.
“Aye,” Halbarad shook his head. “He can be. I lived in fear of him when I was a lad.”
Frodo laughed a little. “I do not feel so bad then.” Frodo watched the two men. “May I get you something, perhaps some tea and eggs?”
“I insist that you take care of yourself first,” Strider said, becoming serious. “Note how he limps today. He supported my full weight yesterday when I was so badly wounded.”
“It is all a blur to me now, I am afraid,” Frodo said with a smile.
“Take a bath, take off those blood-stained clothes or you will frighten any hobbits that come to call.”
“No hobbits will come here, not even Fatty. He is frightened of Men. I do not think he will be back himself until he thinks you are gone. I will put on tea before I step into the bath. Perhaps your friend here will take care of the rest? I must apologize, however. The kitchen ceiling is very low and you may have to drop to your knees to feel comfortable working at the counter.”
Halbarad laughed. “Fear not. I have faced worse hardships.” He laughed again, looking at Estel spread out on two hobbit beds. “This is quite a sight, my friend.”
Frodo limped out of the room. As he closed the door behind him, he heard Strider say in a soft voice, “He is remarkable, Halbarad. I never would have thought the Shirefolk so brave.”
“It is good then that we fight so diligently to protect their borders.”
Frodo left with a puzzled frown, but it was soon forgotten as he filled the generous bathtub with heated water. He discarded his clothing in a filthy pile and climbed into the bath. Taking a scrub brush, he washed the grime from his body. He lay back, humming a bit. He could not wait to tell Bilbo about this. Bilbo would be so proud of all he had done. He did not need to talk about how he had been stealing mushrooms. Bilbo would not approve of that. But at least he could tell how he had saved a Ranger’s life.
Once clean and dressed in fresh clothes, Frodo limped into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for himself and the two men. Big People were, well, big, and Frodo could not imagine how much they would have to eat to maintain their size. If a hobbit easily ate four eggs for breakfast, then a man might have at least 10 each! Luckily, Fatty, who had the healthiest of hobbit appetites, had kept the kitchen well stocked, and Frodo easily counted out two dozen eggs.
“And pound cakes,” Frodo mused. “A hobbit will have at least one, but a man. My gracious! Perhaps pound cakes are not an option, as I would have to make four more! We’ll stick with bread. There are some fresh loaves here and I can make some sizzling bacon to make up for it.”
“Do you need help?”
Frodo jumped, and when he saw it was Halbarad, he laughed a little.
“I am sorry to startle you.”
“It is all right. I am very sorry if I do not have enough food to serve such great men,” Frodo said, barely able to hold the tray. Halbarad looked stunned, and Frodo feared he was angry. Or disappointed. He swallowed. “But I could go to the market. It is only that you would have to wait a fair amount of time. It is quite a walk.”
Then Halbarad started to laugh. “You are serious,” he said. “Frodo…all that food.”
Frodo looked at him, puzzled.
“Come, little one. Let us bring some to poor Estel. If he can endure such shock.”
Halbarad took the heavy tray from Frodo and they came together into the room where Estel rested.
“I hope it is enough,” Frodo said. “I am sure Fatty did not anticipate the coming of Big Folk to his kitchen.”
“Frodo, this looks wonderful,” Estel said. “But it is enough to feed an army of men.”
Frodo felt puzzled, but he thought it best to stay silent. Men jested about the oddest things and sometimes it was better not to respond.
Then again, it was refreshing to have a friend that he did not always know exactly what he was thinking.