The Fellowship was no more than three days out from Rivendell, in a land of rolling hills and steep valleys. They rose up in the dim half-light of very early morning to prepare for another tiresome day of trudging forward, for Gandalf had said they must cover as much distance as they could during the morning, and sleep and hide from prying eyes when the sun was high. At least this morning they had the brief comfort of a fire-mostly for Merry's sake, who had a cold. As the hobbits stood around it warming their hands, he sneezed explosively several times. In the near-perfect silence of the wilderness it was as startling as a trio of Gandalf's Goblin-Crackers going off, and they all jumped.
"Good heavens!" Frodo exclaimed, and then rooted in his waistcoat pocket for a handkerchief. He had learned from his Uncle Bilbo's example and always kept a couple in his pocket, and Sam had learned to carry extras in his pack. He found one and offered it to Merry, who accepted it gratefully. He wiped his streaming eyes, blew his nose into it with a noise like an oliphaunt's bellow, then wadded it into a ball and held it out to Frodo.
Frodo grimaced. "You may keep it."
Merry was pleased: He had left all his own handkerchiefs behind in Rivendell. "Thag you very buch, Frodo."
Pippin giggled. "Hee, you sound like Cousin Bilbo after he rode that barrel all the way to Laketown.
Merry gave him a sour look. "Id's nod funny."
"No, it is not," Strider said. He came forward and wrapped Merry in his own blanket. "Any illness on the road could become more serious if not taken care of promptly, but I have herbs that should help, and if he is kept warm and dry it should pass."
"He needs something hot to eat," Sam said. To Sam, a full belly meant a healthy hobbit.
"And tea would do him good as well," Frodo said. "We're going to need more water, though."
Legolas had returned in time to hear the last part of the conversation, having explored a little while the others slept. "I have scouted ahead. There is a spring that flows over the bluff yonder, a long walk, but easy enough to find again if one follows along the tree line."
Gandalf was sitting on a stone and smoking his pipe. He lifted his water bottle with his free hand, giving it an experimental shake. He tossed it to Pippin. "Here, my lad! Make yourself useful and spare my old knees unneeded exercise."
Pippin soon found himself festooned with water bottles, for none of the Fellowship wished to leave the fire, and all of the water bottles were empty, or nearly so. "Well, I can't carry them all!" Pippin said. "Someone will have to come along and give me a hand. How about you, Merry?"
"Oh, no," Strider said quickly. "I said he must remain warm and dry." Everyone looked pointedly at Pippin, as if implying that whoever went with him to fetch water was bound to get wet.
Pippin felt indignant. When had tumbled into that brook back in Rivendell he hadn't meant to pull Merry and Frodo in after him. "Now, see here!"
"I'll come, Mr. Pippin," Sam said. He poured the last few ounces of his water into a small kettle and pushed it close to the fire to warm, then slung the long strap of the water bottle over his shoulder. He wasn't made of sugar-candy so he wouldn't melt if Mr. Pippin splashed him a little, and better that he should get a soaking than Mr. Frodo.
Gandalf spoke up. "One of us must go with them for safety's sake. We are not so close to Rivendell still that we need not fear the Enemy. His arm is long."
"I do not fear him, or any of his minions," Gimli growled, still puffy-eyed with tiredness. He was not particularly pleasant in the mornings, and the cold made him short-tempered. "I will go."
"I know the way, and I am not dull-witted and stiff with sleep," Legolas said. The Dwarf and the Elf exchanged venomous glances.
Strider was already crumbling pungent dried herbs into Sam's small kettle. He raised a hand to cut off any potential argument that might be brewing. "Peace! I will go, but I must see to Merry first."
Boromir was standing close by, still yawning and stretching, and said nothing. He was a Man of Gondor, not a nursemaid for halflings. Let the others dither over who would go and who would stay.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Pippin said impatiently. "They'll stand around all day trying to decide if I let them! Come along, Boromir, let's get it over with!" Before Boromir could protest Pippin took his hand and was dragging him forward. Sam hurried along after them.
Frodo frowned and looked uncomfortable as he watched them go. Boromir would not have been his first choice as a bodyguard. He was not as familiar with him as Merry and Pippin, having spent much less time in his company, but he recalled Boromir's proud words at the council with deep misgiving. He seemed a good man, noble and truehearted, but perhaps not very tolerant of hobbit quirks and eccentricities. Oh, he did not really think Boromir untrustworthy, but…
Aragorn laid a hand on Frodo's shoulder, as if reading his secret thoughts. "Do not concern yourself. Boromir will watch over them and see that they come to no harm."
"I would worry more over Boromir. Poor ode fellow, in Pippin's cludges," Merry said, and sneezed.
>> > > > > > > > > > > > > > >
"You need hobbit lessons," Pippin announced.
Boromir's eyebrows rose into his hairline. "Beg pardon?"
Overhead, a pale, wintry light was growing in a sky the colour of slate, and the wind was blowing sharp and cold. Sam was ahead, but Pippin had dropped back to walk beside Boromir. "Yes, you know, like those sword lessons you gave to Merry and me in Rivendell, except with no swords, of course. You are a bit too big for a proper hobbit, but we could give you lessons in eating, drinking, and how to be handy with a jest, or a tale, or a riddle. You are altogether too serious. Now, take riddles, for example-"
"It is a serious world," Boromir interrupted, but he couldn't help smiling a little. How the little halfling did run on, his thoughts hopping from one subject to another, like a mouse in a pile of straw! "And this quest is a serious undertaking, not a walking-party from one meal to the next, as some seem to assume."
Pippin rolled his eyes. "Now you sound like Gandalf."
In response to this, Boromir sat down on a large boulder and started removing his boot. Pippin and Sam walked a littler farther on before they realized he was not with them. "What are you doing there?" Pippin called. "Aren't you going to help us get the water?"
"I am removing a stone from my boot," Boromir said. "And I do not think you need me to hold your hand. You both are quite capable of filling all of the water bottles yourselves, and I will be along soon enough."
Sam saw the light of battle in Pippin's eye and the stubborn set of his jaw and moved to head him off. He gave Pippin a gentle nudge with his elbow. "Come along, Mr. Pippin, and don't pester him. The sooner we're done the sooner we'll be back at the fire."
Pippin grumbled but they went on and soon reached the spring. A frozen waterfall of icicles hung over the edge of the bluff, some as thick as a hobbit's arm. A thin trickle of clear water near the rough jumble of broken stone at its base had fed a small pool, now frozen. The pool might have been a merry sight in springtime, when the snowmelt came rushing down like white foam and the pool lay sparkling under the sun, like a blue jewel in the cupped hand of the hills; but now it was still, and a thick scum of dirty ice covered the surface of the water, a dulled mirror that reflected nothing. It made Sam shiver, thinking of that inky-black water so close to his feet, but he had no intentions of going any nearer to it, so he turned his back and went to work.
Pippin picked up a water bottle and held it under the trickle. It was an infuriatingly slow task. He shivered and stamped his feet, switching hands often so he could thrust his half-frozen fingers into the warmth of his armpit. "I wish therewas somefaster way to do this!" Pippin sighed. He glanced out toward the water. Some minor flood in warmer weather had carried a branch to the centre of the pool, and the weak winter sun had melted the thinner ice there. His eyes brightened, and before Sam could stop him he had stepped out onto the ice, water bottle in hand.
Sam dropped his water bottle and grasped at Pippin's cloak, missing him by inches. "Come back!" Sam cried. What on earth could he do to help if the ice caved in? He hadn't got any rope, and he couldn't swim a stroke! "You'll go through!"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Sam," Pippin called. "It might be too thin for a Man, but it will certainly hold a hobbit." He stamped one furry foot for emphasis. Sam's eyes bulged and he clapped his hands to his head. "See? Perfectly safe. Now toss me that other water bottle while I make this hole a bit bigger." Pippin chopped at the rotten edge of the ice with his heel.
Sam felt close to swooning with fright. "Mr. Pippin, please! Come back!"
Pippin ignored him. "That should do it. We'll just dip them in and-" The rest of his words were cut off by a whoop and a splash, and suddenly Pippin was sitting on the ice with one leg through the hole up to his hip, the other stretched out painfully in front of him. "Confound it all! Stop giggling, Sam!"
Sam's cheeks had turned red and his eyes watered. "Beg pardon, Mr. Pippin." Miraculously, he kept a straight face. "Will you be wantin' that other water bottle now?"
"No, thank you!" Pippin said, all offended dignity. He struggled mightily for several minutes to pull himself out of his predicament, but with his leg at such an awkward angle he couldn't get enough leverage. He looked at Sam mournfully. "I'm stuck."
Sam sighed. "Hang on, then, I'm coming." He didn't feel quite brave enough to stand, so he crawled out onto the ice on all fours, moving forward foot by slow, creeping foot. The rough surface scraped his hands and his knees ached with the cold, but he could feel a greasy sweat break out on his forehead. He could very nearly feel the hungry pull of the dark water through the ice.
"Do hurry a little, Sam!" Pippin said at last, exasperated with Sam's slow progress. "My leg is freezing!"
"Almost there," Sam said, and his voice didn't tremble…much. He came up behind Pippin and put his hands under his arms. "You give a heave and push off as best you can, and I'll pull. At the count of three: One, two..."
"Wait!" Pippin's eyes widened. "Do you hear something?"
"Hear what?" Sam said sharply. He was frightened and in no mood to deal with Mr. Pippin's foolishness. But there was a sound, an ominous sound, a high, thin creak growing louder by the minute. Sam's mouth went dry. "Oh. Oh dear."
The ice broke into shards like a brittle plate and suddenly there was nothing under Sam's feet, and he was sinking in icy darkness with no idea which way was up. Pippin knew how to swim and had no fear of water, and though the shock took his breath away he bobbed to the surface like a cork. Sam popped up a few seconds later, flailing and choking and clutching at Pippin for dear life.
"Stop! Stop!" Pippin spluttered. "Calm down, Sam! You'll drown us both!" He managed to pry loose Sam's clinging hands and guide them to the floating branch. It was an unsteady perch and inclined to roll, but it gave Sam something solid to hang on to while he caught his breath.
"That didn't work so well," Pippin said cheerfully while treading water. Sam held the branch and breathed gratefully. A wonderful thing, just breathing. "Well," Pippin said again when Sam didn't answer. "I suppose we should get out now, shouldn't we?"
Now that the hole was bigger, Pippin had plenty of room to manoeuvre. He dogpaddled to the edge, placed the palms of his hands against the ice, and heaved himself up and out like a landed fish, plopping onto his stomach with a wet slap. "Your turn, S-Sam!" His hands were shaking and his teeth were clacking so he could barely spit the words out. Pippin held out his hands and Sam crawled along the branch to the edge of the hole. They clasped hands and Sam held on like grim death, stark fear in his eyes. Pippin would bear the marks of his fingers for many days to come. "Don't pinch, I've got you. Up we go!"
But Sam was a much bigger and stouter built hobbit than young Pippin, and the icy water had soaked his heavy woollen clothes through to his skin. The fur-lined cloak and jacket given to him by Master Elrond drew water like a sponge, adding to his weight. Pippin yanked hard, his arms trembling with effort, but with each tug Sam's broad chest met the brittle edge of the ice and broke it away, and he fell back with a splash.
"This isn't working, Mr. Pippin," Sam gasped. His head and shoulders were out of the water, at least, but he was shivering hard. With each heartbeat Pippin could feel the chills running down the length of his arms, like the wind humming through a tightly stretched cord.
Pippin was panting and his face was running with sweat in spite of the cold. "Very well. Let's rest a bit and think."
"You need to go on," Sam said, after a pause. "No need for both of us to freeze. Go find Captain Boromir, he'll fish me out."
"Gracious, no!" Pippin cried. "And what's to keep you from sinking like a rock while I'm off looking for him? Oho, you're not getting away that easily, Sam. Gandalf will no doubt turn me into a spotted toad for losing his water bottle, and I'm not about to travel across the mountains in Merry's pocket by myself!"
Sam laughed weakly. "Alright then, let's give a shout."
Pippin squeezed Sam's hands and took a deep breath. "Hi! Boromir! Help! Help!"
"Hoy! Help! Captain Boromir!" Sam bellowed for all he was worth. The cold wind seemed to pick up their small hobbit voices and whirl them away into the grey sky, and mocking echoes returned to them from the brown hills, but Boromir did not come.
Author's Note: I hesitated for a long time before deciding to post this story. For one thing, it seemed too similar to many other stories on this site, at least to me, and I feared cries of plagiarism. To any author that might see shades of their work in what I have written here, please know that I would never, never deliberately poach on your turf. I am just dipping my toes in the same pool, so to speak, and any similarities are purely unintentional.