This is a sequel to my story "Quarantined", in which Aragorn and Gandalf first met Frodo and Samwise when Frodo was 22 and Sam was 11. Frodo and Aragorn strongly bonded and became fast friends in a very short period of time, during a serious illness and subsequent adventure. As this story begins, it has been 15 years since they last saw each other (when Frodo was 35). This new story assumes familiarity with "Quarantined" and will contain many references to it, but I am hopeful that it can also stand on its own.
Please remember that this is AU. The path of the journey (Bree, the Marshes, Weathertop, the Ford, and Rivendell) is true to canon, but the actions, interactions, relationships, motivations, and dialogue will be that which best serve this story.
DISCLAIMER: Of course. The characters don't belong to me, I just get to think about them day and night.
Notes for Chapter 1: I've pulled bits of the movie into Chapter 1 (events in the common room, the stairs, Aragorn's room, his sword, etc.), but I don't plan to do that very often after this chapter; the story will, for the most part, use book-canon as a framework for my own imagination.
Butterbur's line in this chapter is taken directly from "The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien.
BY CHANCE OR PURPOSE
Chapter 1 --- The Doom of Men
It had been 15 years, but even if it had been 150, Aragorn would have recognized him instantly. He had last seen Frodo Baggins on the hobbit's 35th birthday, two years after Bilbo had left the Shire. He wondered what the boy's life had been like, since they had last spoken. The boy… Aragorn shook his head in amusement. If he remembered correctly, Frodo had to be 50 now, although he looked… the Ranger frowned at the hobbit talking with Butterbur. Frodo looked the same as he had at 35… at 33… in fact, hardly older then he had appeared at 22, when they first met. How was he so unchanged by the years?
The Ranger pressed more deeply into the shadowed corner in which he sat, deciding not to approach Frodo yet, wishing to direct no attention towards him. Drawing thoughtfully on his pipe, he watched as Butterbur escorted the hobbits away, toward rooms and a bath, he assumed. Gandalf had said he would be arriving with Frodo and Samwise, but here were four hobbits… and no Gandalf. The sandy-haired, robust hobbit could only be Sam, just a tweenager when he last saw him, but the other two were unfamiliar.
All four were armed --- and all four looked as frightened as if Carcharoth, the legendary wolf beast of Morgoth, was on their heels.
Aragorn was still thinking, and assessing the occupants of the common room from the shadows, when the hobbits returned, shown to a table by Butterbur. Frodo sat quietly, his eyes downcast, but the other three looked about eagerly. As the youngest-looking one dashed over to the bar, Aragorn suddenly noticed that Sam was looking directly at him, then Frodo was speaking to Butterbur…
"…he's known round here as Strider…"
Aragorn saw Frodo frown, and Sam bending close to speak to him. Could they possibly remember that name heard but a few times, so long ago? But there was no time to think about it further, as Frodo abruptly leaped up from the table, crying out to his young companion at the bar. He tripped over something, was falling… and Aragorn leaped to his feet in astonishment, along with nearly every other occupant of the room. Frodo had vanished into thin air.
Where was he… there! Frodo reappeared under a table, looking dazed and frightened, and Aragorn instantly grabbed him and half-carried him up the stairs. Banging open the door to his own small room, Aragorn slammed it shut behind them and quickly kneeled down, peering into the hobbit's ashen face.
"Frodo," the Ranger whispered. He clasped Frodo's cold hands in his; they were shaking, as was he, and Aragorn realized that the hobbit was in shock. Wherever the Ring had taken him, or whatever it had revealed to him, Frodo seemed slow to comprehend that the vision had faded, and that an old friend was here before him.
"Frodo?" Aragorn searched the enormous blue eyes for any sign of recognition. "Little one, do you not remember me?"
Frodo's eyes slowly traveled over Aragorn's face, and he started trembling even harder.
"N. . no one has called me that since…" Frodo's eyes filled with tears. "Estel?" he whispered. "Are you really here?"
"I'm really here," Aragorn murmured. He released Frodo's hands and pulled a blanket off the bed, wrapping it about the shaking hobbit and pulling him into his arms. "I'm here. Shhh, it's all right. Calm down."
There was a sudden crash and commotion behind them, and a cry of "Let 'im go!" Aragorn, in one fluid motion, thrust Frodo behind him, leaped to his feet, and spun about, the tip of his drawn sword coming to a halt an inch from Sam Gamgee's heart. He quickly lowered his sword and surveyed the hobbits, all three holding long, intricately carved knives; long enough, he realized, for a hobbit to use as a sword. The youngest-looking hobbit was obviously trying to appear fierce, although the hand holding his sword was shaking; the second hobbit had flung out one arm to keep his companion from lunging forward, and held his sword steady in the other; and Sam…
"Sam!" Frodo cried. He threw off the blanket and stumbled forward. "Sam, it's Estel!"
"Long ago I asked you to look after him, Samwise," Aragorn chuckled. "I am glad to see that you took my advice so literally."
"Mr. Estel?" Sam dropped his sword in astonishment. "They call you 'Strider' here, I forgot that." Suddenly he grinned. "Sorry for not recognizin' you right off, sir; you haven't changed much, but you could do with some cleanin' up."
"We all could," sighed Frodo.
Aragorn smiled. "No apology is necessary, Sam --- I've been out in the Wild for a long time; and besides, you were barely a tweenager when you last saw me." He bowed to the two unfamiliar hobbits. "Aragorn, son of Arathorn, at your service."
"I'm confused," announced Pippin. He sheathed his sword with the awkwardness of one unused to the act, then quickly edged past the strange Man and grabbed Frodo. Reassuring himself that his cousin was unhurt, he turned to face Aragorn. "Who are you, sir? Why do you have so many names?"
Suddenly Frodo burst into relieved laughter and leaped at Aragorn, who caught him in his arms and whirled him about, chuckling.
"Oh, Estel," said Frodo breathlessly, when the Man set him back down on the floor, "I'm so glad to see you. You can't imagine what's been going on."
"I can guess," said Aragorn, sitting on the bed. "Gandalf has told me much, and by your faces when you arrived, I can guess that you are already pursued by servants of the Enemy. After what happened downstairs just now…" He shook his head reprovingly at Frodo. "We dare not stay here more than this one night."
"We?" Merry frowned. He had lowered his sword, but had not sheathed it.
"Is Gandalf here?" asked Pippin.
"No," replied Aragorn, "and as he is not with you, I am greatly concerned." He looked closely at the young hobbit. "May I ask your name?"
"My cousin," added Frodo.
"I am honored, Master Took," Aragorn said. "Gandalf has told me much about your family."
"Uh oh," murmured Frodo with a smile. He turned to Merry. "And this is Merry --- another of my cousins, Meriadoc Brandybuck."
Aragorn inclined his head slightly to Merry, whose frown grew deeper.
"Have I incurred your wrath, Master Brandybuck?"
"Frodo has spoken of you," Merry said carefully. "I know you are old friends, and we can certainly use an ally; but even though hobbits may be no match for… whatever is out there…"
Merry took a deep breath and turned to face Frodo. "Frodo, this may be the bravest and kindest Ranger in all of Middle-earth, but he is still a Man. You said Gandalf told you that Men are easily corrupted by…" He hesitated.
"By the Enemy's Ring," said Aragorn quietly.
"Merry!" cried Frodo, aghast. "This is Estel."
"He is wise to be cautious, Frodo," said Aragorn, "and Gandalf was correct. It is true that Men have been the most quickly corrupted by the Ring."
"Then why should we trust you?" asked Merry. "We will draw less attention without you, than with you."
Aragorn regarded him gravely. "Master Brandybuck, I am indebted to Frodo and Samwise for my very life; but even if I was not, as you say, we are friends. I will not betray Frodo, and will do everything within my power to help him. But beyond that, without my aid you will never get out of Bree unharmed; not now. Regretfully, the attention that Frodo drew to your group will not soon be forgotten. What I can do for you, I will do, at risk of my own life. And you must know…" Aragorn stood up abruptly, a long, gleaming knife appearing in each of his hands. "You must know that if I meant your cousin harm, or wished to take the Ring, I could have done so by now." Suddenly the knives were gone, and Aragorn smiled gently. "Meriadoc, if by my life or death I can protect Frodo, I will."
Merry was silent for a long moment, looking from Frodo to Aragorn, then appeared to make up his mind. He very deliberately sheathed his sword, then bowed.
"Thank you, sir. And please call me Merry."
"Merry, when you and Peregrin return to the Shire, you must say nothing of Frodo and Sam's whereabouts."
"Return to the Shire?" gasped Pippin. "Not likely! We're going with Frodo, no matter how long it takes."
"Pippin…" Frodo came over to his cousin and looked into his eyes. "You've come far enough. You and Merry must return home."
"No," said Merry firmly, coming to stand besides Pippin. "We never meant to leave you, Frodo, and we will not."
Sam came to stand with them, and all three stood in front of Frodo, silent and determined.
Frodo swallowed hard. "Thank you," he murmured faintly.
Aragorn closed his eyes as a voice out of the past returned to his mind. His own voice… clear as a bell… "Bilbo, there is something about Frodo. He has such a gentle spirit, he inspires others to want to protect and safeguard it. If ever he is in danger, I suspect there will be many who would risk much to see to his safety."
"You have true friends, Frodo Baggins," said Aragorn with a smile. All four hobbits looked up at him. "There are few treasures as highly valued. But now…" He took a deep breath and glanced about the small room. "We must make preparations for the night, and discuss our plans for tomorrow."
It was late, and the room was strewn with packs and cloaks and empty plates. Long after the hobbits had fallen asleep on the human-sized bed, Aragorn stood at the window, peering out into the night, his mind whirling with questions.
Of all people, why was it Frodo who had been chosen to carry this burden, to be hunted by the Enemy? Was it by chance or purpose that they had met, so many years before, so that Frodo now trusted him without question?
Could he, alone, conceal and defend these four against the servants of the Dark Lord?
Where was Gandalf?
Suddenly, Aragorn looked down to find Frodo standing at his side, yawning.
"It may be awhile before you see another soft bed, little one; you should try to get back to sleep."
Frodo smiled when he heard the old nickname. It had been a long time.
"I will," he said. "Can we talk a bit, first?"
Aragorn sat down on the chair by the glowing hearth, making room for Frodo to sit beside him.
"Estel, where have you been?"
"We last saw each other several years after Bilbo left," Aragorn began, speaking quietly so as not to wake the others. "You had grown so mature; being Master of Bag End agreed with you."
Frodo smiled. "It didn't take me long to realize that Bilbo hadn't left me. He stayed as long as he could; longer than he had planned to, I think. I knew his heart was no longer in the Shire."
"But yours was," said Aragorn softly. Frodo nodded.
"When Bilbo left the Shire," Aragorn continued, "Gandalf asked that the Dúnedain redouble their efforts to safeguard it." He frowned. "He revealed to me, then, his suspicions about the Ring, and that it was the Ring, and you, he was safeguarding."
"I'm glad he didn't tell me that, years ago," said Frodo. "I would have been terrified." He sighed. "So many years have passed; I wondered if I would ever see you again."
"A great deal has happened," Aragorn said. "A few years after I last saw you, my mother died."
"Oh," said Frodo, leaning against the Ranger's chest. "I didn't know."
"It's all right," said Aragorn quietly, wrapping an arm about the hobbit. "She hadn't been happy for a long time. Unlike Bilbo, she felt she had nowhere else to go, and nothing to hold her here." He sighed. "Not long after she died, Gandalf sought me out, and I began a long, difficult journey south. I was grateful for the chance to leave the north for awhile, but I never dreamed I would be gone for eight long years."
"Where did you go?"
"Nearly to Mordor --- tracking Gollum. I returned only last year."
"Gollum!" Frodo stared at him in amazement. "You've seen that creature?"
"Yes," replied Aragorn. "You saw him in a delirium, Frodo, but I have seen him in truth. He is now in Mirkwood, being guarded by the woodland elves. At least we can be assured that he is not pursuing you."
"Everything else is," Frodo murmured, "but let us speak no more of that tonight." He smiled, his luminous eyes reflecting the hearth's flickering light. "Seeing you makes me feel like a tweenager again."
"You look like a tweenager," replied Aragorn with a frown. "Sam looks older than you do. You take after Bilbo, I see."
Frodo shook his head but said nothing, and just gazed at Aragorn steadily. The Ranger's eyes slowly widened at a dawning comprehension.
"Yes," Frodo whispered.
The Ranger's arm tightened about Frodo as he grasped the full immensity of what ownership of the One Ring meant. This hobbit next to him was now potentially as long-lived as any elf. As long as he bore the Ring, he would never grow or look any older. Ageless. Deathless. Immortal.
Immortality… Long Ages ago, the desperate quest for it had twisted a people's joy in life into a fear of death, and lay at the heart of the corruption and downfall of Númenor itself. The unattainable, the unthinkable… now, literally within his grasp…
That is what the ancient kings believed, also, Aragorn thought to himself grimly. To claim the Ring is to choose servitude to evil. And I am no king, merely a Ranger… with little ones to protect. He looked down with a smile, seeing that Frodo had fallen fast asleep, curled trustingly within the curve of his arm.
"You and your burden shall reach Rivendell safely, Frodo," Aragorn murmured softly. "I vow it."
He gently gathered the exhausted hobbit into his arms and carried him to the bed, then tucked him under the warm blankets. Without waking, Sam stirred and slid his arm protectively around Frodo.
"Help Bilbo look after this scamp."
"I surely will, sir."
Aragorn smiled at the old memory, then turned back to the window and resumed his watch.
** TBC **
I will have houseguests until May 26, so I won't be able to work on chapter 2 right away. I'd love to hear how you hope the story will progress, and what you want to see happen!