Elrond refused to allow further investigation of the body or its clothing. He had locked the door to the cell upon their leaving and it remained locked until the following morning. When he opened the door again, the day after the intruder's murder, the smell of death in the closed room was overwhelming.
The Elf-lord had commanded his servants to remove the corpse without touching it, and after some discussion, it was agreed to use long poles to roll the body onto a pallet. From there, it was borne far away from the House and burned. Gandalf accompanied the grim processional, but there was no call for the wizard's intervention – the corpse remained only a corpse, and evidenced no further murderous intent.
Returning, Gandalf was met by a duo of frustrated hobbits. Merry and Pippin had slept through the previous day's excitement and while were aware that something had occurred, were unable to worm the details out of Elrond's people. The hobbits knew that something was wrong when the guards were not withdrawn from Frodo's door and balcony. Instead, the Elves posted there seemed more watchful then ever. Questioning them was useless; the guards were polite but entirely uninformative. Becoming concerned when they received no word of the interrogation by late afternoon, Merry and Pip had sought out Aragorn but been turned away from his door. Then they tried Gandalf, but were unable to locate him. Finally, being curious to the point of bursting, they approached the Elf-lord, to be met by a dark ageless gaze and a coolly formal, "When I have word to give you, little masters, I shall do so."
Cowed, Merry and Pippin met Sam in the adjoining room of Frodo's bedchamber (as Sam still would not let his master out of his sight) to pool their information. Bilbo joined them there, his own attempts at information-gathering equally fruitless. The elderly hobbit was quite put out; he was not accustomed to having his questions turned aside, however politely. They could do little but fume and speculate, and when the chimes rang for the evening meal, it was with some relief that the three adjoined to eat and have another go at finding out what had happened.
The following day, when Pippin (who was on look-out at the window) spotted Gandalf returning from the intruder's cremation, the wizard could not escape. Small hands twined in his robes before the wizard was aware of them and insistent tugs conveyed him to Frodo's room. Gandalf sighed and gave in, stopping before the door to send word asking that Aragorn join them. They had to know sooner or later, and Frodo was now recovered enough to hear.
Gandalf almost changed his mind when faced with the exhaustion and pain in the Ringbearer's beautiful morning glory eyes. Frodo lay quietly in the oversized bed, propped up on several pillows, arms at his sides, not moving overmuch. Sam stood by his side, grey eyes watchful. Merry and Pippin commandeered stools and Bilbo, by virtue of age, took the padded chair next to Frodo's bed. It was obvious, from the five sets of serious eyes that turned to him, that the hobbits had held their own councils.
The wizard opened his mouth to speak when a soft knock at the door interrupted him, and Aragorn entered. He met the eyes of each of them and nodded, but did not speak. A fine silk scarf encircled his neck.
The wizard cleared his throat and all eyes, halfling and human, turned to him. "What have you heard?" he asked them collectively.
There was some uncomfortable shifting, then Bilbo spoke. "We know that something is wrong. No one will speak to us. Why have we not been told what the Man has said?"
Gandalf had dreaded this. Frodo watched him closely, dark brows quirked. Merry was staring at him and the wizard could almost see the thoughts racing through that quicksilver mind.
"There is nothing to be feared from the intruder. He will not harm Frodo again." Five nods. They waited.
"We learned nothing from the Man himself. He would not speak to us." Five more nods. Pippin fidgeted on his stool.
"Gandalf…" said Bilbo, who knew him longest and best.
"All right, all right. The Man is dead." The shock mirrored in their eyes was almost a relief from that waiting stare. Frodo started to pull himself further upright, stiffened and closed his eyes in sudden pain. Sam glanced at him anxiously.
"Did you kill him?" Frodo's soft voice cut through the stasis. He made the question sound perfectly reasonable, as if he were asking after the extermination of a gopher in his gardens.
"No!" Gandalf's shocked reply was overridden by the rasping growl that was Aragorn's voice. "No," Aragorn repeated more gently. He reached up and unwound the silk scarf from around his throat. The abraded flesh, red and angry, stood out in stark contrast to the sun-browned skin of his neck.
Merry gasped and came to his feet, took a step forward. Pippin cried out, then put a hand over his mouth. The others were frozen.
Bilbo struggled to his feet and caught the Ranger's hand, guiding him to sit in the padded chair. Aragorn regarded his old friend in some amusement. "Thank you, Bilbo, but I am not hurt." He waited a moment while Bilbo crawled up beside Frodo and settled himself next to his nephew. "We had no hand in the man's death. When we went to question him yesterday, he was already dead."
The hobbits did not miss that Aragorn had to stop for a moment and swallow carefully. Merry took up Frodo's cup and poured the Ranger a glass of cool water. Aragorn thanked him with a smile and sipped it cautiously.
"This," and the Ranger motioned at his throat, "resulted when I tried to examine the intruder's body. We could learn nothing of him from other members of his embassy. All of his credentials were genuine. I suspect he killed the real emissary and stole his papers – perhaps the rider that Elrond sent along his backtrail can tell us more when he returns in a few days."
Another careful sip of water. "He had been strangled ... in a locked and windowless room. I had knelt down to see what could be learned of the manner of the man' death. When I unwound the cord from the man's neck, it … it leaped at me." Aragorn could see from the hobbits' puzzled eyes that they did not understand. "The cord, which was the belt of the man's tunic, threw itself upon me and tried to strangle me. Gandalf stopped it."
Aragorn watched as horror dawned in the small ones' eyes. Merry's soft voice broke the extended silence. "Saruman?"
Aragorn should have known that that one would put it together first. "Gandalf thinks so. As do I, and Elrond."
"But you're all right?" This from Bilbo, who was regarding him worriedly.
"I am not hurt," the Ranger assured the old hobbit gently. A cough interrupted what he had intended to say next.
Gandalf moved over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Enough talking for now, my friend. Rest your voice." Aragorn nodded and leaned back in the chair, stretching his long legs before him.
"What happens now?" asked Frodo in his gentle voice. Gandalf was alarmed by the hobbit's pallor. Frodo's face held scarcely more color than the white coverlet upon his bed. Sam had moved closer to him and placed a hand on a small dagger that the wizard had not seen before. The stocky hobbit looked angry, his eyes dark and fuming.
"We keep the guards on your room," Gandalf answered him. "You go nowhere alone. Lord Elrond has ways of searching out foreign magic in his domain; he will use them. Though I do not think Saruman will try such a thing again, now that we have been alerted."
"But he'll try somethin' else?" Gandalf wished Sam had not asked that before Frodo, but now he had to answer.
"He might. He covets the Ring."
"It's a long road to Mount Doom. He'll have a better chance after we leave Rivendell." Pippin covered his mouth, but it was too late. He had already blurted out what was on all their minds.
Gandalf regarded the youngest hobbit sadly. "Yes," he agreed.
* * * * *
Insisting that both Frodo and Aragorn needed to rest, Gandalf shooed the hobbits into the adjoining room then ordered Aragorn back to his own quarters. The Ranger had raised an eyebrow at his friend but went without comment, not having the voice to protest.
There, the hobbits pressed the wizard for more details and Gandalf told them what little more they knew. Bilbo and his young cousins listened quietly, but Sam was unable to be still, striding from the balcony to sit for a moment to rise and check on Frodo until the wizard thought he would wear a path in the polished floor.
"How can we protect 'im, then?" Samwise interrupted, as Gandalf was discussing the possibility of an elven escort to the borders of Imladris. "I mean," he continued when the wizard paused and looked at him, "what can we do? Me an' Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin? We're not any o' us fighters, but we're not helpless, either."
He turned to Merry and held out the dagger. "You gave me this, Mr. Merry, an' I thank you for it. I mean 'ta keep it, with your permission. I want to learn 'ta use it, proper-like. I saw the knives that that Wood-elf, that Legolas, carries. D'you think he would teach me?"
"I will ask him if you wish it, Sam," Gandalf told him softly. The wizard's heart sorrowed at the hobbit's request, at the need for it, as he watched a little of the gentleness of Sam's spirit slip away.
Merry had listened, absorbed, to this exchange. "Yes," he murmured. "Yes … good thinking, Sam. Pippin and I should be able to defend Frodo, too. We have the swords Aragorn gave us; we should be able to wield them honorably. If we ask, Gandalf, do you think Boromir would give us lessons?"
"I think that such a request would please him," responded the wizard. "Hobbits are a thing out of legend to his people. It would do you all good to get to know each other better before we must leave on our journey."
"Well, that's settled, then!" Bilbo pushed himself to his feet and beamed at the hobbits and the old wizard. "And you have given me an excellent idea for parting gifts for my Frodo-lad, when the time comes. Now, what say you, young hobbits, to a bite of lunch?" Pippin leaped up eagerly. "Gandalf, will you join us?"
"Thank you, Bilbo, but I have some thinking to do. Sam, why don't you go with them? I will sit with your master until you return."
The wizard watched the hobbits troop out. Rising, he walked out to the balcony and met the clear eyes of the Elf posted under the railing, then opened the door again and exchanged a nod with the Elf in the hall. Savoring the quiet, he let himself into the interior room and took the padded chair by Frodo's bedside. Frodo slept quietly, Sam having made him drink another of Elrond's sleep-inducing teas.
The wizard reached over and gently moved a curl off the pale face. "Rest, Frodo," he murmured softly. "Heal and grow strong." Frodo sighed and turned his head towards the gentle voice. "You will have such need of strength, my friend…" Pulling out his pipe, Gandalf sat back and waited for the Ringbearer to wake.