A/N: Final chapter! Wow! Disclaimer is at the beginning.
Chapter 15-Mending and Meetings
"…spent too much of his own strength…"
"…on the mend…"
Aragorn's eyes flew open and he found with chagrin that he was in his old bed in his old room. Lord Elrond sat stiffly in a nearby chair, reading a tattered tome he'd probably memorized long ago. His clenched jaw gave away his anger, though it was belied by the furrow in his brow. Aragorn didn't need to ask what had happened; earlier events still swam in his foggy mind. His father pretended not to notice as he attempted to sit up a first time, then a second. As his third try elicited a grunt and their eyes met.
"You've quite weakened yourself, Estel. You'll be fortunate if you're out of bed unaided by the end of the week." The elf's face softened as he finally relented and set the book aside.
Once he was propped up by the heap of pillows, the ranger looked down at the coverlet. He felt like a tween again, being scolded like this. "I knew what I was doing, Ada."
"I know. That is why I am angry with you, Estel. You are important, too."
"I couldn't see him in more pain. I couldn't bear it."
Elrond's calm was clearly forced as he bit out, "You weakened your heart, and you are very fortunate you did not incur more permanent damage." The shadows around his eyes told Aragorn more than he desired to know, and he shuddered at his close call, not because he was afraid of death, but because of the despair he saw in the depths of those eyes.
"How is Frodo?" Aragorn changed the subject.
Elrond frowned at his tactic, but allowed an answer, "He rests peacefully now. Most of those who would have been at his bedside are quite worried about you. They were quite beside themselves when we carried you out of that room. It was most unexpected—and then you proceeded to sleep for two days."
"Hush, Ada, he needed the rest away." Arwen's melodic voice scolded as her stepped inside the room from the garden entrance, cutting off Aragorn's predictable exclamation over how long he'd been in bed. "There's been quite an uproar in the kitchen this morning. It seems two of our young hobbit guests were caught raiding the pantry last night. Cook is quite offended."
Lord Elrond hid a smile and Aragorn allowed a sigh of relief to escape, "So Pippin and Merry are on the mend. I am glad to hear it."
"Indeed. And I suspect Frodo will be making an appearance long before you do."
Aragorn frowned. "He's regained his strength already?" Before Elrond could dissuade him, he'd thrown back the coverlet and swung his legs over the side. He seemed to have forgotten his earlier failure at the trial of sitting upright unaided. He didn't even get the chance to stand upright as his actions caught up with him and he involuntarily slumped back on the bed.
Elrond helped him put his feet back under the covers and looked at him pointedly, "I trust you've learned your lesson about spreading yourself too thin?"
"Yes, Ada," Aragorn mumbled obediently, feeling very much like the scolded child instead of a hardened warrior. "How is Frodo?"
At this, Elrond smiled, "Well, this morning, he woke at the break of dawn and demanded a stew. Gandalf tried to coax him with a bit of broth, but it just wouldn't do for him. He quite insisted that he wanted a stew. Cook reports he was quite starved and ate several helpings."
Aragorn smiled tiredly, his body betraying him as his eyelids suddenly became heavy. He felt a hand on his brow.
"Sleep, my son. We have much to discuss when you recover."
Elladan poked his head around the door, "Ada, the guests from Mirkwood have arrived. Legolas has gone to welcome them."
Mirkwood. Aragorn's foggy brain struggled to keep up with events he'd been left in the dark about. No matter how hard he strained to stay awake, he couldn't stop the welcoming dark comfort that was absorbing his mind. He never noticed the pillows being removed and being lowered gently to the bed.
The older elf rose after readjusting the coverlet for good measure, "Very well. I shall join you all shortly." They had much to discuss with their brothers from Mirkwood. He didn't relish reporting that the quest had been delayed by at least another month, but he and Gandalf both agreed that—given the dangers of the road—it would be ill-advised for the fellowship to venture out again until fully recovered. They had been fortunate indeed, at least in retaining their lives. The casualty counts so early into their departure most certainly could not be counted as fortunate. The Valar had protected them, and he could only pray that they would continue to watch over the Fellowship of the Ring.
Afternoon found Frodo lounging in the garden. Sam could tell by his master's careful movement that his wound was still causing his pain, yet wisely kept silent. Mr. Frodo had been a mite grouchy of late, and Sam felt his best course was to tread lightly, so he continued regaling the younger Baggins with a retelling of Pippin and Merry's latest adventure.
"Cook was mighty perturbed, he was. Mr. Pippin got caught red hanged in the pantry with the mutton. Apparently it was Cook's prized mutton chop he'd been reserving for some special guests come dinnertime. Mr. Pip and Mr. Merry had near' 'bout eaten the whole stash. Cook threw them out by their britches."
"So that was the railing I heard earlier."
"Yes, Mr. Frodo. He was complaining to Mr. Elrond that the twins had best be goin' hunting to replace it. He's making Merry and Pippin go with him, too!"
Frodo thought Sam sounded a bit jealous, and was about to say so when he sensed a change in subject. Sam's mouth was drawn up in a frown, like he was working up the curious to say something, but couldn't quite bring himself to begin. His patience rather thin, he finally bit out, "Sam. Just say whatever it is you're going to say so we can get back to more entertaining forms of conversation."
The gardener gulped, "Well, Mr. Frodo. It's about that ring of Mr. Bilbo's, you see. I, er, borrowed it while you were…er…were…"
Frodo's eyes narrowed, "Borrowed it? That doesn't sound like you, Sam."
The words seemed to come out in a rush. "You were…you were dying and Gandalf came and got me. Mr. Elrond and Mr. Strider were trying to save you, only the ring wouldn't let them, so I agreed to keep it for you until you could heal. Only I think you've healed now and I don't want to have to keep up with it anymore." He abruptly ripped it off his neck and deposited it into Frodo's hand.
The ringbearer was so surprised that he almost dropped it. Looking at Sam curiously, he slipped the heavy chain over his head and hid the ring under his clothes.
Sam was visibly relieved.
Frodo's arched eyebrow asked the question he didn't want to answer, yet couldn't be ignored. "It's evil. When I wear it, I can feel it. It makes me uneasy."
The other hobbit nodded knowingly. "I'll be glad when we're rid of it, Sam. Until then, I'm willing to bear the burden. Now help me back inside. Hopefully Cook isn't so angry he won't fix me another of those stews. Learn the recipe, will you, Sam?"
As the afternoon faded into early evening, Lord Elrond sat in council with Gandalf the Gray, Legolas, and the young elf's father, Lord Thranduil.
"You regret letting them go, do you not?" Gandalf was saying.
"How can I have no regret? Barely gone and already such injuries, and a lengthy delay."
"It was no fault of the hobbits. Had you sent only men, or elves, the ring would not have been safe."
Thranduil did not look pleased with his son's words. "The ring was hardly safe with their presence, either. They were unable to defend themselves."
Gandalf chuckled, "You might be surprised. They held their own quite well."
"You must allow my guard to accompany the fellowship. They need the extra measures to protect them."
Elrond was silent for a long while, thinking over the unique fellowship of dwarf and elf and man. "The question of changing the fellowship should be for the members of the fellowship to decide. They have bonded, and to upset the balance of that loyalty could be more deadly than any outside force Sauron could send. Though I do feel some sense of responsibility for sending the hobbit into danger, they have proven their merit. Perhaps it is folly for them to continue, but the choice must remain with the fellowship."
Gandalf nodded quietly, meeting Legolas' eyes. "Lord Thranduil, I'm afraid we must decline your offer of assistance. The Valar have shown their blessing on our journey, and we must assume they would desire no change be made in our fellowship."
Arguments surrounded the Fellowship of the Ring for their remaining time at Rivendell. When they departed again, the season was late and storms in the mountains would slow them, yet they had still declined outside aide. All members held a profound distrust of offers of help and, by contrast held a greater trust of each other, having seen the willingness of the others' to protect their group at all costs, and their trustworthiness regarding the ring and the vulnerability of its bearer. So they set out again. This time, Frodo knew which way to lead them.
Thank you, dear readers, for sticking with this story for so long, for the encouraging reviews and favorites and author alerts that kept me writing. I hope you have been pleased with the story—I know I enjoyed writing (and torturing the poor hobbits)!