Aragorn sat at his patient's side, listening to each laboured breath and once more tried to remember all the lessons he had received from his foster father, a feeling of helplessness beginning to overwhelm him. Even on the road from Weathertop there had been the hope of reaching Elrond, but here there was no knowledgeable healer at the end of the journey. There was only Estel.
He prepared another dose of the boneset, careful not to exceed the dose he had decided upon. To give Frodo too much could make him very nauseous and that would be dangerous in the unconscious hobbit. He paused . . . vomiting . . . Aragorn suddenly remembered something he had heard Elrond mention only once. When all else failed some healers induced vomiting in cases like this because the violent reaction brought on coughing, which helped clear the chest. It was a dangerous procedure, however, as the patient could aspirate the contents of his own stomach. The Ranger assessed his charge, wondering whether there was any chance he would recover on his own.
Frodo's face was cold, his pallid skin holding a dusky shadow, and yet a sheen of perspiration covered his brow. His lips and fingertips were blue and his half lidded eyes revealed no sign of bright blue iris. Limp as a rag, he lay still but for the slight rise and fall of his small chest, each outward breath announced by the gurgling rattle that Aragorn had come to associate closely with those near the end of their time. Unwilling to make the decision on his own he called the Fellowship together once more.
"We must discuss Frodo's condition." There was no way to sweeten the words he had to say. "I believe he is reaching the end of his strength and we may lose him."
"No!" wailed Pippin and Merry put an arm about his cousin's shoulder and pulled him close, although his own heart echoed Pip's cry.
"Mr Frodo is stronger than he looks. He'll pull through. Don't you go giving up on him," warned Sam, adopting his most stubborn, arms folded, posture.
Legolas laid a hand on Sam's shoulder and the little hobbit looked up into his bright green eyes. "Aragorn is right, Sam." The eyes grew distant. "I have heard such breathing before. Always it follows long illness and comes just before the end." His memory pushed forward an image of his mother, golden hair spread out across the pillow, and his father weeping softly at her side.
Sam shrugged off the elf's hand. "Mr Frodo will come through." He stuck out his chin in defiance.
Gimli came to stand at the wood elf's side, his gruff voice kindly. "He has a strong spirit, Master Hobbit, but even the strongest may fail."
"I feared this may come," sighed Gandalf, wearily, as he leaned more heavily upon his staff. He had played his part in pushing Frodo into this quest and it grieved him that the tiny hobbit would not even see it done, before ending his days. The wizard tried to push aside the image of a pink-cheeked lad, running through the orchard towards him, dark curls bobbing in the golden sunlight and a merry twinkle in his cornflower blue eyes.
Boromir surveyed his grieving companions. "He made a valiant effort but he was not made for such hardship." Why could they not see this? These hobbits were not meant for perilous quests, no matter how brave. They had not been bred to war, as the men of Gondor.
"Mr Frodo has endured more hardship in his life than you can imagine," bristled Sam. "He's come through before and he'll come through again." What did these big folk know of the strength of hobbits? Mr Frodo was chosen to be Ringbearer and surely that counted for something?
The man from Gondor opened his mouth to reply but Aragorn held up his hand to forestall him. "Enough, please," he begged, tiredly. The presence of the Ring was tugging at each, trying to drive wedges between them. Elrond had called them a Fellowship and now was not the time to drift apart for they were yet at the beginning of their long journey.
"There is one last treatment that I may use but I will not take this action without the agreement of the Fellowship, for it is not without its dangers." All eyes turned to him once more. In this, at least, he would see them united.
"Then let us know the worst," demanded Merry, ever the one to face a truth head on.
"It is a procedure I have heard mentioned only once and I have seen it tried not at all. Frodo is trapped in a cycle. The congestion in his lungs causes pain when he breathes so he eases it by breathing more shallowly. That, in turn, means that the congestion builds and so he takes in smaller breaths to compensate. And so it goes on until the lungs are filled with fluid and he can no longer breath at all." He paused to let the import of his words sink in.
"I have heard that some healers try to break this cycle by making their patient vomit. This causes such a shock to the system that a deep breath is taken, and that in turn induces coughing which starts to clear the lungs." He surveyed the Fellowship again, taking in their shocked expressions. "It is a drastic method and we must be careful that he does not choke upon the contents of his own stomach . . ." he let his words trail off and waited for their response.
Pippin looked up from his cousin's shoulder. "It sounds horrible. Isn't there any other treatment?"
Aragorn shook his head, sadly. "Elrond may know some other way but I do not. And I have not even seen it done, only heard tell of it."
"What are his chances if you don't do this?" asked Merry.
The Ranger swallowed back a lump in his throat. "If we do not do this I fear it will be the end for Frodo."
He had seen only brief flashes of Frodo's merry spirit on this dark journey but he had sat for many hours, listening to Bilbo talk of the pranks played by his nephew when he was younger. It saddened him that such joy and laughter should be torn from the world, without even the chance to complete the task that had robbed Frodo of them.
Sam shook his head but it was Merry that spoke up again. "We trusted you all the way from Bree and you did not let us down. You have tended Frodo these past days when you could have easily abandoned him and gone on, taking the Ring yourself. If you say there is no other way . . . I trust you."
Aragorn felt the cold mantle of responsibility settle upon his shoulders once more. So many people had tied up their hopes in him and now here was another.
"Thank you, Merry. And what of the rest of you?" They had all a say in the matter for if it came to the worst it would be one of them who would have to take on the burden of becoming Ringbearer.
Boromir spoke up first. "I see little choice. I believe you must try this or risk losing the little one. I take it that you will not make trial of the Ring to cure him?"
His query was met with a round of shaken heads and he spread his hands in defeat.
Gimli shook his head, sadly. "It is a hard choice for he may be lost either way. But I have watched him on the journey and although I have not known him as long as Aragorn, I see a fighter and I think he would want to be given this opportunity. I say you must make the attempt."
"I agree with Gimli," added Legolas. "His song is strong and pure but it is fading." His eyes met Aragorn's grey ones. "And I trust Aragorn's judgement in this."
"I too think we must make trial of your plan. What of the other hobbits?" asked Gandalf.
Pippin wiped his eyes on his sleeve and glanced at Merry. "I think you should try it, although I am terribly afraid for Frodo."
All eyes turned to Sam, who stood shuffling his feet for a moment. "I believe Mr Frodo will come through, whether you do this or not but . . ." He looked up at Strider and his soft brown were filled with pain. "Wiser folk than me say that this must be done so I say, let's be on with it."
Gandalf turned to the Ranger. "You have your agreement. How do you wish to proceed?"
"A larger dose of the tincture I have already been giving him will induce the vomiting but we must watch him carefully once it is administered."
"How long will it take to work?" asked Pippin.
Strider was already seeking out the small bottle. "Only a few minutes. We must ensure that we are ready." He felt relieved now that the decision had been made.
"Legolas and Sam . . . I will need help. Frodo seems calmest with you. We will need basins and cloths and he must be held upright. I may also need your help getting him to take the medicine. It is very bitter and it has been difficult forcing him even to take the small doses I was administering before. Although it has been less so these past few hours," he added quietly.
Boromir and Gimli volunteered to take the guard and the rest of the Fellowship helped in whatever ways they could. Blankets were warmed, water collected, the fire was stoked and candles set so that they had light to work. When all was in readiness Aragorn signalled for Legolas to lift Frodo.
The elf wrapped him in a blanket and lifted him into his lap with all the tenderness he would have shown a newborn babe, Frodo's tiny form leaning against his strong chest.
Strider handed the cup of boneset tincture to Sam. The gardener hesitated for a moment, and then held it to Frodo's lips.
"Come on now, Mr Frodo. Just a few mouthfuls and it's done."
It was doubtful at this stage that Frodo could hear him and even less, understand him, but still Sam tried to reason and soothe. The revolting liquid dribbled between blue lips and Aragorn looked intently for the bobbing of Frodo's throat to show that he had swallowed. Four swallows and it was finished. Aragorn waited with the empty bowl and offered up a silent prayer.
As he had predicted, the vile liquid did not take long to work on such a tiny form. His hand upon Frodo's stomach, Legolas felt the sudden contraction of muscle.
His warrior reflexes coming to the fore, Aragorn had the basin in place in time. Frodo wretched dryly once and then again, bringing back a little liquid. Strider noted that some of it would probably be the tincture but it had done its job. Frodo broke out in a cold sweat and his body shook as he heaved again. There was little in his stomach and only a little bile was the result but then he gasped for air and, sure enough, his lungs responded by sending him into a paroxysm of coughing.
Pippin had to turn away when he saw the disgusting brown green sputum his cousin coughed up but Sam sat with his Master through it all, wiping his brow and mouth. Legolas held Frodo as steady as he could, whispering words of comfort and encouragement in his light, soothing voice and Aragorn watched and waited.
Slowly the coughing became less violent and then it faded away. Frodo lay, lax, in Legolas' arms, but his breathing was deeper and the ominous rattle had gone. Aragorn sighed with relief as his patient was laid back against the padding of his makeshift pillow. Merry brought warmed blankets and Aragorn and Sam removed the now damp ones, bathing him with warm water before wrapping Frodo snugly.
Sam wiped his Master's face with a damp cloth. "He looks a bit better. His lips aren't blue any more. What do we do now?"
"Now we wait, Sam," sighed Strider. "The next few hours will tell. I hope we do not have to try that again for he is very weak and I am not sure that he will withstand it."
At his place by the hearth Pippin could not help thinking, "And I could not stand it, either."
After an hour Frodo's breathing had not deteriorated and he seemed to be holding his own once more. Aragorn decided to try the Mullein tea again. Although still not conscious, they managed to get the Ringbearer to swallow it. There were several more small coughing fits, each one productive, and with each one Frodo's breathing seemed to improve. Although he did not wake and his fever still produced shivering chills and sweats.
It was at the end of one of the boughts of coughing that Frodo's blankets had to be changed again because they were soaked in perspiration, and within a couple of hours of that Sam called Strider across.
The Ranger settled himself on the floor, opposite the hobbit and tilted his head, quizzically.
"I'm not sure if it's just my wishful thinking, but I think he looks a bit better, Mr Strider. What do you think?"
Aragorn placed fingers to the pulse at Frodo's neck. It was still a little too fast but it seemed steady and the skin was warm and dry. He parted the covers and laid his ear to Frodo's chest, hearing much congestion still, but the sound of air moving in and out was also clear. Strider pulled the blankets close about him once more, to avoid chilling his little patient. The Ringbearer was still pale but the slightest pink tinge to his cheeks told of a good supply of air, rather than fever.
Aragorn leaned back and smiled. "I think you may be right, Sam. We must be careful to keep him warm now and try to get him to take some nourishment. His body will need strength to recover. I will send Merry with some broth." As he turned to leave, he heard Sam's voice.
"Thank you, Strider. I wasn't sure of you in Bree. Mr Frodo trusted you but that's his nature, and sometimes people take advantage of it. I trust Mr Frodo though, so I went along with his decision." His voice contained a certainty that the man had not heard before. "I just wanted you to know that I believe you've more than proved the trust he put in you, sir."
Aragorn paused and turned, bowing low to the little gardener and touching hand to his heart. Praise from Samwise Gamgee was not easily earned but when it was given it was highly prized and Strider felt honoured to have received it.
"Frodo? Mr Frodo?"
Frodo blinked open sleep encrusted eyes and a familiar face slowly coalesced in the dim light. "Sam. How long have I been asleep?" His body was gripped by a great weariness, and every muscle ached, as though he had been running for miles. He swallowed in a dry and sore throat.
"You've had quite a sleep, Mr Frodo. You've been a bit sick, and we were worried for a while, but now you're on the mend." Sam was smiling and, over his shoulder, Frodo could see Merry and Pippin smiling too, although he thought he could also see the sparkle of a tear in Pippin's eye.
"Try a little of this broth," offered Sam, as he touched a warm cup to his Master's lips. The last few hours had been a confused jumble of nightmare and reality but Frodo decided to let his questions wait. For now, he was hungry and then, perhaps he would sleep again.
Pippin watched, for once silent as his cousin drank the broth their friend offered. This time, Frodo's gentle soul had been returned to them. But what trials were still to come? Pippin tried to memorise every curve of Frodo's features, every nuance of his voice, for the thought stole coldly into his heart that there may come a day when he would never know them again.