The grey-clad company raced into the courtyard, the elvish mounts tossing their heads, their sleek bodies foamed and dripping. Sparks flashed from hooves as the horses fought for their footing on the smooth flagstones. The escort, dispatched from the House by its lord, had met Glorfindel two leagues from Imladris. At Glorfindel's shouted instructions, half had continued on to find the hobbit's cousins, his servant and Estel; the others turned their mounts to race alongside the valiant Asfaloth as the white stallion ran with all his heart.
Glorfindel rode high in the light saddle, centering his weight and the weight of his blanket-wrapped burden over the stallion's withers to help his gallant steed. The small amount of extra weight was nothing to the great stallion, but Asfaloth had galloped all the leagues from the Ford without rest, from the moment Aragorn had placed the motionless bundle in Glorfindel's arms. Foam lathered his graceful neck and splattered behind him, tiny white streamers that heralded approaching exhaustion. His rider curled his body protectively over their small, unconscious passenger and rode with his legs only, keeping his seat through ability earned by millennia of horsemanship. Wordlessly, one of the escort held out his long arms, offering to take the small bundle on his fresher horse, but Glorfindel shook his head, fearing even the brief delay of an exchange. The Elf leaned forward to whisper in the great stallion's ear, "Faster, great heart. Run!" Asfaloth swiveled an ear back to listen then leaped forward, running with all the strength of his unquenchable spirit.
One of the escort broke from the others, a slender, light-framed Elf-woman on a swift silver mare, and urged her mount forward and even with the stallion, fairly flying. Her eyes met Glorfindel's as she passed, and silent words of hope and encouragement flowed into his weary mind. Glorfindel nodded his thanks and then she was gone, racing ahead to carry news of him and the four that followed to their lord.
The escort flanked the great stallion as they pounded across the narrow bridge and through the gates of the Last Homely House. Elrond awaited them at the top of the stairs, his sons at his side, the young lords' arms holding wooden boxes of medicinal supplies and bandages. The Elf-lord's deep eyes took in his Elf's exhausted state, the foam lying thick on Asfaloth's flanks and dripping from his mouth, and swept down the stairs, his great copper-colored mantle billowing behind him.
Glorfindel bowed as best he could from the saddle. "He yet lives, my lord. By the grace of Elbereth and his own great will, he lives."
Elrond's long-fingered hands were already folding back the blankets from the small face. Dark hair, curly as was all his kind, closed eyes framed by thick dark lashes, an almost pointed chin with a stubborn mouth. Skin so pale he could see blue veins pulse weakly beneath the surface. Even as he watched, the small face scrunched up in agony and a faint cry of pain issued from between the waxen lips.
"Give him to me." Glorfindel gently placed the bundle in Elrond's outstretched arms. The Elf-lord took him carefully and cradled him against his chest. "He is as cold as one in death. Elladan," and he turned to find the dark-haired Elves at his sides, "build up the fire in his room, and set bricks to heat on the hearth." He turned to the other Elf, a mirror-image of the other. "Elrohir, take the supplies there. I do not fear now that he will die before we can treat him."
The Elves, the lord's twin sons, nodded once and were gone up through the great carven doors of the House. Elrond turned back to Glorfindel and Asfaloth. The Elf straightened in the saddle and stallion raised his head proudly. Quivers ran along both their frames but no concessions would they give to weariness. "My thanks," the Master of Rivendell said quietly. "To you and to your valiant Asfaloth, for your bravery at the Ford and your bearing of this little one to the safety of my House. Go now. Attend to Asfaloth, and rest. You have expended much of your strength against our foes."
Glorfindel nodded and swung off the stallion. "Yes, my lord. Though I will wait to see Estel, by your leave."
The Elf-lord nodded his permission. Then shifting the silent bundle slightly closer to him, he turned to ascend the steps. He was halted by a soft, "My lord?"
Elrond turned his elegant head. Glorfindel mounted the first stair and laid a gentle hand on the bundle. "Will he live?"
"I will do all that I can," responded the Elf-lord slowly. "But he has been fourteen days with this evil thing inside of him, tearing at his body and his soul. It is inconceivable that he has survived so long … he must have almost no strength left in him." He looked into the halfling's still, white face, then raised his gaze to his Elf.
"A Morgul-blade is made for use on one person only, no other. Once spent, it dissolves into poison and dust. But the … infection … the evil … it introduces into the victim's body consumes him slowly, inch by agonizing inch until he fades from natural sight and is lost to all that walks under the Sun."
"Slavery," Glorfindel whispered. "Eternal slavery, in torment, until the end of all things."
Elrond nodded sorrowfully and folded the blankets back over the pale face to keep the small form warm. He looked again to his Elf and repeated, "I will do all that I can. Surviving such a wound is unprecedented. And for one so small… This is a wound out of all knowledge."
Glorfindel did not see hope in the ageless eyes. He watched as his lord turned carefully and ascended the stairs, the small, still form held close to his chest. Tears suddenly clouded his own eyes and he turned back to his big stallion. Asfaloth whinnied softly and pushed his great head into the Elf's chest. Glorfindel rubbed him between his huge dark eyes, comforting them both.
* * * * *
Asfaloth had been cooled and brushed down before the second half of the escort brought in Estel and the three other halflings. Glorfindel hurried from the stables at the clatter of hooves in the courtyard. The escort was missing one; an Elf had stayed behind to lead in the pony at the little beast's own pace. If he had not been so weary and the circumstances so grim, Glorfindel would have smiled at the little ones' expressions. They had each been mounted before an Elf, and would no doubt add saddle-soreness to their sorrows and hurts on the morrow.
He had not time to know them well during their short journey together, other than that they were brave of heart and unflinching in the face of terror and pursuit. But he had been quietly astonished at their devotion to their hurt one, caring only for his safety and the easing of his pain. He could, however, almost guess their thoughts as they stared, eyes wide, at the immense House of Elrond Half-Elven. Meriadoc gaped about him, swift mind calculating and mapping, doubtless trying to ascertain where the Elves had taken his cousin. Peregrin's green-gold eyes were enormous as he stared in awe, open-mouthed, unconsciously pressing back against the Elf that had brought him in. Samwise looked about him at the realization of years of dreams of seeing Elven-kind and their abodes, this one most especially. His grey eyes were disbelieving, the joy he would otherwise have felt at his arrival here darkened and marred by the reason they were come.
Aragorn, of course, had no eyes for the graceful décor or delicate intricacies of elvish architecture. Elrond's foster son had been raised here, after all. He swung down from behind Ralolith, thanking him with a squeeze of the Elf's arm and a few words that Glorfindel could not catch over the dancing of hooves on the flagstones and jingle of harnesses. Seeing his friend's gaze sweep the courtyard, Glorfindel stepped quickly into his sight then went to him.
"How is he? Did he make it?" Aragorn gave him no gentle words of greeting but Glorfindel did not take offense, knowing the fear that gnawed at the man's heart. The Dúnadan was filthy, as were the halflings, covered with smoke and scrapes and mud from the Ford when it had risen against the evil that defiled the clean waters. Before he could answer, he found the little ones gathered about him, their pointed ears straining to catch his answer as they hugged each other in fatigue and fear.
"He is not dead," the Elf assured them hurriedly. "Lord Elrond has taken him and is caring for him now." The youngest one, Peregrin, put his hands over his eyes and began to weep, overcome by exhaustion and terror. The other cousin, Meriadoc, drew him into an embrace and began rubbing the young one's back soothingly, but his sharp blue eyes never left the Elf's.
"Will you take us to him?"
"It would be better," said Glorfindel as gently as he could, "if you let my lord work unhindered." Merry's gaze narrowed and beside him, the little gardener called Sam stuck out his jaw. The Elf looked over their heads at Aragorn, silently appealing for help.
The Ranger moved around to the front of their little circle and knelt, placing a hand on Merry's shoulder and one on Sam's. "Glorfindel speaks truly," Aragorn told them, lifting his hand from Merry to push the damp curls from Pippin's tear-streaked face. "There is no greater healer and lore-master in all of Middle-earth than Elrond Half-elven. If Frodo is to have any chance at all, we must allow Elrond to use his gifts without so many anxious relatives and friends hanging over his shoulder."
Sam trembled at that. "But surely you don't mean me, sir," the hobbit cried desperately. "I won't get in the way. And he'll need me, even if he's not awake." Aragorn started to shake his head, but Sam would not give up. "Strider, Gandalf told me I wasn't 'ta leave him. Gandalf said that. You can't mean to send me away, sir, not when Gandalf said I was 'ta be with him."
Aragorn straightened, having no reply to that. He looked at Glorfindel helplessly but the Elf just shook his head, not bothering to hide the slight smile that framed his lips. His old friend had been outmaneuvered by a hobbit. Sensing victory, the two cousins moved closer to Sam. "All right," the Man said reluctantly, "but Sam only, mind you." This was directed at Merry and Pippin, who looked as though they might protest, then decided to settle with what gain they could.
Merry drew Sam off to the side while Aragorn and Glorfindel conversed softly. "It's not that I don't trust these people," Merry said with his mouth against Sam's ear, mindful of the stories he had heard of elvish hearing, "but just you watch them, Sam. You're going to have to protect him for all of us." Pippin crowded closer to them both, shaking.
"I aim to," replied Sam grimly. "Don't you worry, Mr. Merry, Master Pippin. I'll see they do right by him." Then Strider was calling for him, and Sam left the others to follow the Man up and into the House, the memory of their strained faces following him as he and Strider raced down the corridor.
"Come," said Glorfindel gently to the two remaining halflings. "You will wish to bathe and refresh yourselves. I will then have trays sent to your rooms, as you are no doubt hungry." The two were clinging to each other so tightly that he had to pry them apart and give them a gentle shove towards the steps. One of Elrond's folk awaited them at the top of the stairs. The hobbits slowed to a halt, looking up the stairs at the tall Elf, and Glorfindel's heart was wrung in pity for what they must feel. So many Big People, in so strange a place. "If you will arrange for baths and for dinner-trays to be sent to their rooms, I will attend our guests," he told the Elf, who nodded in understanding and gave him directions to the quarters that had been hastily set aside for the little ones.
Glorfindel was slightly disconcerted to find that the two halflings did not wish their own quarters. Elves valued seclusion but Estel had told him that these were a clannish people and he had seen that for himself. Rather than call a member of Elrond's housekeeping staff and subject them to yet another intimidating stranger, he himself obligingly moved one of the beds from the adjoining room into the other and waved aside their grateful thanks. The younger one stayed very close to his older cousin, and the Elf wished there was some way he could reassure the frightened youngling. Pippin had shown great valor at the Ford, as had his cousin and Samwise, but Glorfindel sensed that this one was not much out of his childhood and though brave, Peregrin was nearing his limits. He needed rest and food and peace even more than did Meriadoc.
Looking about the room that had been assigned them, the Elf regretted that he had not thought to request that hobbit-sized furnishings be placed in the room while he awaited their arrival. Other things had occupied his mind, he thought with a sigh. The two little ones would have trouble even sitting in the chairs. Perhaps the furnishings could be replaced with another set more suitable to their size. Arwen might arrange for some of the elfling sized furniture to be taken from storage; her brothers' perhaps. His ruminations were interrupted by a soft knock at the door, and silent parade of Elves delivered two copper tubs and a great mound of towels, soap, sweet-smelling oils and buckets and buckets of boiling water. Glorfindel frowned, then smiled as he realized that by the time the little ones had eaten, the water would be perfect. The last two who entered carried covered trays, and he was amused to see the halflings lean forward and sniff appreciatively. Making a mental note to himself to speak to the Evenstar for them, Glorfindel bowed to the small ones, instructed them on how to contact him at need, and followed the last of the Elves out.
He was very weary. The unveiling of his power at the Ford had not been without cost. Rarely did an Elf-lord of his stature, one who still embodied the light of the Eldar, allow that light to shine forth in this lesser Age of the world. Briefly Glorfindel wondered what mortal eyes had seen in those few moments that he had revealed himself to drive the maddened horses into the devouring waters.
Those unspeakable Wraiths must be accounted for, the bodies of their mounts counted. The Elf knew well that the cleansing waters had not destroyed the Nazgûl – they could not be ended so. But they could be unhorsed and unformed, forced to return to their master empty and shapeless until new forms could be made for them and new mounts found for them to ride. Not even one must be allowed to roam at will, able to inflict its evil on the innocents that sheltered now here.
* * * * *
Sam refused stubbornly to call out to the Ranger, to beg him to slow down to hobbit-speed. Those long shanks moved at a pace he could not hope to match. Consumed by worry, Aragorn unthinkingly raced ahead and was soon out of the hobbit's sight. Sam gritted his teeth and leaned forward and churned after the man, his furry feet a blur on the polished wooden floors. He skidded around a corner and hopped on one foot to regain his balance, slipping on the wax.
Sam spun at the cry, his heart refusing to believe what his ears told him. It was impossible. Impossible. But he had heard that dear voice from his babyhood; lifted in amusement, giving encouragement in teaching, spinning wondrous tales in spare moments as he followed his father in the gardens. His first master.
Bilbo held out his arms and Sam ran into them, the tears he had held back with such determination undermined and undamed by this unlooked-for miracle. Dimly he registered the thinness of his old master – Bilbo was one hundred, twenty-eight now, after all, bless him, and Sam loosened his grip, careful of crushing the frail bones. Bilbo hugged him back, heedless, laughing as tears of his own ran down his wrinkled face.
"Sir," gasped Sam at last, "I don't understand. You came here? And you never sent no letters, nor came home to visit? The Gaffer worried, he did. And Mr. Frodo, he's never stopped hoping you would come back."
Bilbo hugged him close again then released him. "I know, Sam. But I had to, you see. It was time Frodo was his own hobbit, and I did so want to travel again." The old hobbit laughed, his deep brown eyes sparkling. "And I did, too, for awhile. Visited Dale and the Misty Mountains, and other places besides. I did just what I wanted to, until I came here and imposed upon Elrond, and I've been here ever since."
"But no letters," pursued Sam, unable to overcome the enormity of that. "Mr. Frodo fretted so, wondering if you were all right. He kept up the Birthday Party every year, even if it did get smaller. Why, if'n he'd know you were so close, he'd have -"
"Exactly, Sam," Bilbo said with a nod. "He'd have come here like lightening. Do what I didn't want him to. It was time for Frodo to come into his own … live his own life without the interference of crotchety old Uncle Bilbo." Bilbo smiled wistfully, brown eyes distant. "I always rather hoped he'd come to visit me one day, though, when he was ready. No, Sam my lad, Frodo is Master of Bag End now, and that's the way it should be."
Sam pulled back and searched the dear, wrinkled face. Did Bilbo not know? The old hobbit's next words disabused him of that notion.
"Now," Bilbo said softly. "Follow me. Elrond had me sent for when Glorfindel brought him in, and said you'd all soon be following. It seems I shall see all of my favorite lads today." He gave a tremulous smile. "I'll show you where they've put Frodo. Elrond thought he might feel better with me there, even if he's still unconscious. He'll need you too, Sam."
Sam's brief joy was washed away in a tide of bitter fear. Numbly he followed the old hobbit along a long corridor. Bilbo stopped before a great wooden door and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Sam did the same, feeling his insides quiver so that he felt ill. He took one more deep breath and opened the door to a scene of horror.
* TBC *