(Author's Note: Gentle Hobbit and EllaG, thank you both for focusing on Bilbo's soft, crooning voice. He represents both bravery and love for me in that scene. Tulip Proudfoot, I'm so glad you liked the curtains. And I treasure your observation. Jet-1, yes, I can! But you can relax now. Heartofahobbit, isn't it wonderful that we have all of Middle-earth to play in? Hullo, Curious cat, and your wait is over. Aratlithiel1, this story was originally 14 chapters, but I just couldn't give it up there – had to have a 'coming down' chapter. Rabidsamfan, well, you can start on the toenails, I suppose. :D Nobody, it is reviews like yours that I cherish most – where you know the end of the ride but the way there is exciting. Firnsarnien, I feel like you are setting me up for your medical bills. I had better get back to your story, hadn't I? Sam, our hobbit-lads wouldn't be nearly as appealing if they were human, would they? Endymion2, that is exactly why I moved from Phoenix to a little town in the mountains! *grins* I can wreak my evil little plots from here! Bookworm2000, your comment reminded me of when Frodo tells Gandalf that he is not 'made for perilous quests.' In retrospect, such a sad remark. Kat, here you go. And no cliffie at the end. Azaelia, you are absolutely right, and I'm working on it. Elentari* angel, that review was very motivating. You poor thing! Ariel3, I confess that I enjoy aggravating you. It's just so much fun. Willow, no, let me thank you for those inspiring words. Galadrielady945, welcome! The problem seems to be in stopping. LilyBaggins, you sound like you are ranting. Foaming and ranting. Good! Coriandra, just when everyone relaxes … then pow! Hahahahaaa! *ahem* Fangelir, all the range of emotions, indeed. How we wish we knew more about this time. Lady Jaina, we can't get enough of it, can we? Frodomeg, you manage to evoke the most vivid mental picture with those few words. Baylor, there just aren't enough 'fighting for Frodo's life in Rivendell' fics out there. (Hint. Hint.) I'm glad you are enjoying mine. (Note hints.) LinZe, thank you for letting me know you've like the story! Aemilia Rose, thanks for staying with me to the end. Friends, this story has been a trial and a joy, and I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. My thanks to Marigold for her 'go for it' attitude and for, as always, her insistence on writing the best scene possible. Everyone, thank you so much.)
"What is it? What is it?" Merry did not recognize his own voice. It was high and shrill in his ears, the words blurred by fear and exhaustion.
They had no time to spare for his questions. Elrond's hands were cupping Frodo's face as the Elf-lord leaned forward to peer into the fluttering eyes. "Elladan, the sedative! He is waking up!"
The young Elf already had the earthenware jar unstoppered and was pouring the pungent liquid onto a cloth. With astonishing quickness, Elrond snatched it from him and pushed the fabric directly over Frodo's mouth and nose. Frodo's eyes were half-open but rolled back in his head, their brilliant irises visible only as sapphire crescent moons under the blue-tinged lids. Merry saw the dark eyelashes quiver, saw his cousin struggle against the drug. Frodo tried to turn his head away from the cloth, the cords standing out in his neck, but Elrond held his head down relentlessly, the cloth tight against his face. With a small coughing whimper, Frodo subsided and lay still.
Bilbo chaffed the cold hand he still held anxiously. "Frodo my lad?" he whispered. "Frodo?"
"He sleeps, Bilbo. Do not fear – it is only sleep. Naught but healing sleep." Elrond handed the cloth back to Elrohir and bent to examine Aragorn's stitching. After a moment he stepped back and with a wave of his hand, motioned for the Ranger to finish his task. "Well done, my children," he said quietly. Then his weary gaze turned to Gandalf. "Mirthrandir?" he asked softly.
The wizard shook his head and released Frodo's shoulder. Merry saw that his cousin would wear a necklace of bruises where Gandalf had pressed him into the bed. Gandalf saw the dark shadows too, blossoming even as they watched, and brushed his hand gently over them in apology and sorrow. His staff, still barring shut the balcony doors, shuddered then drifted gently to the floor where it lay as if exhausted. Gandalf rubbed at his face tiredly. "The Eye is looking this way, but it had not time to focus on this House. We were very lucky, Elrond. Very lucky indeed."
"Luck," murmured the healer. "I begin to think that greater powers than ours watch over this little one." He turned around and stepped back unsteadily to the divan, dropping himself into it almost gracelessly, his robes pooling at his feet. "If he dies now, he will at least die free. If he survives the night, I will have hope for him."
"You mean he might not?" This time Merry would not have his question put aside. He was trembling, he realized, with tears still sliding down his own face. It did not matter. "But you got the shard out of him!"
The Elf-lord regarded him patiently. "Yes, he is free of it, Meriadoc. But the effort cost him dearly and has near finished him. He has lost much blood and is very weak." Elrond stretched out his long arm and rested his fingers against the side of Frodo's pale throat for a moment, obviously counting. When he withdrew his hand and let it fall to his side, Merry thought he looked weary beyond words.
"I have tonics to lend him strength, which I will administer in a few hours, after his body has calmed and reclaimed some strength. For now, the best medicine for him is peace, and rest." Elrond sighed and ran his narrow fingers through his dark hair. It was limp and sticky with drying perspiration. "Elrohir, would you and your brother please put some bricks on the hearth to heat? Frodo must be kept warm, especially his left side." The Elf-lord's gaze traveled to the shuttered windows, then to Merry. "It is very late. You would most help your cousin if you all left him to my care. I will stay with him for a while, then one of my children. Do not fear – one of us will be always with him."
"I will stay also," Bilbo declared. It seemed that Elrond might object, his concern for the old hobbit written clearly on his tired face. Bilbo returned his gaze levelly, refusing to acknowledge the tremors that ran through his aged body. Faced with that indomitable valor, Elrond could but nod his permission. Bilbo released his nephew's hand long enough to grope for a chair but Sam leapt up from the floor as if catapulted, dragging over the chair before his old master's hand could fasten on it. Sam settled Bilbo into the chair tenderly, then stood quietly behind it as Bilbo caught up his nephew's limp hand again, humming faintly under his breath. Pippin followed slowly and sagged down at Bilbo's feet, leaning against the chair legs.
"Sir," Merry began slowly, "we'd rather stay. Especially if … if we don't know yet." Sam met his gaze and nodded shortly.
Elrond looked at him sorrowfully. "I understand that, Meriadoc. But you cannot help here. And Frodo will need you rested and able to care for him, come the morning. He will no doubt have many questions for you and wish to speak with you at length." A thin, wry smile twisted the Elf-lord's lips. "If I may judge him by Bilbo and the three of you … I think you will need your wits about you when he wakes." This last was delivered with a spark of humor in the deep-set eyes, and Merry felt an answering smile tug at his own lips.
"But if he…" Merry started to say, but Elrond shook his head. When he spoke again, his voice was kind.
"Master Frodo has come through flame and darkness, my friends. Now that he is released from the evil that was dragging him into the Shadow, can you doubt that he will live? Such a great heart would refuse to succumb to death now. We will watch and ward him, this night. Go to your rest, my friends. I do not think he will die."
"Listen to Elrond, Merry," Gandalf murmured. The wizard put his hands on the flat of his back and stretched, then walked unsteadily to the balcony doors and bent to catch up his staff. Merry glared at it suspiciously but it seemed disinclined to movement. Gandalf caught the direction of his stare and his mouth curled up in a tired smirk, then his expression softened when Merry shook his head in stubborn refusal of his advice. "Merry, my lad … go. Take Sam and Pippin with you. I give you my word that I will stay with Frodo until he wakes."
The younger hobbits looked at each other, Pippin raising a puffy and tear-stained face. It was that more than Elrond's words or Gandalf's reassurance, more than the exhausted peace on Frodo's face, that decided Merry. He walked stiffly to Bilbo's chair and kissed his elderly cousin, then reached over to squeeze Sam's shoulder. "Up you get, lads," he told them softly. "We're going to bed."
"Mr. Merry –"
"No, Sam." Merry was adamant. "Frodo's going to need you most of all." He tried to grin, aware of how ghastly it must have looked. "You don't expect Pip and I to keep him quiet, do you?"
Merry was the last out the door, Sam and Pippin dragging themselves before him, almost too weary to walk. Pippin was still hiccupping, overwrought and exhausted. He would be asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, Merry knew. Sam moved woodenly, as if all of his muscles were clenched, and Merry wondered if he would sleep at all that night. What remained of the night... A soft snatch of song drifted to him as he reached the door, and he looked back into the still room. Elladan was moving quietly about the space, damping the candles and reducing the number of lamps to a more restful level. Elrohir was gently sponging the blood from Frodo's body, clean linens and towels folded at his side. Those were the images that would stay forever in Merry's memory whenever he thought of that dreadful night. But foremost among them was the sight of their elderly cousin sitting by Frodo's bedside, limned in light, singing quietly as he stroked his unconscious heir's hand.
* * * * *
Merry woke from nightmares with a pounding headache. For a moment he struggled to remember the horrifying dreams, then let the ghostly imaginings recede into the dark recesses of his mind. He did not need to seek after terrible dreams when far worse might greet him upon rising.
After a second thought, he amended that. Elrond would have sent for them – he was sure of it. Even if it were too late, Elrond would have summoned them.
Merry turned his head painfully on an aching neck. Sunlight streamed through the drapes and outside, bird song could be heard above the ever-present rushing of the great waterfalls. Pippin lay snuggled on the small bed next to him, and Sam on his far side on one of the divans. Merry spared a moment's gratitude to Arwen for providing them this more hobbit-sized furniture … it seemed more friendly somehow.
He sat up and Sam's eyes snapped open, unclouded by any trace of sleep. Merry quickly raised a finger to his lips and gestured at Pippin. Sam nodded and sat up slowly, scrubbing at his face with a grimace. None of them had washed before falling into bed last night, and Merry added burning eyes and general stickiness and discomfort to his list of grievances against the morning. But such minor things could wait. He had to have word of Frodo.
Trying to be as stealthy as possible, Merry swung his feet to the floor and stood up. Pippin snuffled and turned over, pulling the covers up over his head, but he did not wake. Sam rose just as soundlessly and joined Merry at the washbasin.
"I'm going to check on Frodo," Merry whispered against Sam's ear. "Will you stay with Pip? I don't want him to wake up and no one be here."
"Begging your pardon, sir," Sam whispered back, "but it'd be better if you were here for the lad instead o' me. Let me go."
"All right," Merry breathed. "You'll come back as soon as you've word?"
"Aye, sir, that I will." Sam paused long enough to wash his face and hands and don a fresh shirt, then he was gone, pulling the door shut silently behind himself.
Merry drifted over to the window and pulled back the curtain just enough to look out. It was very bright outside. As Elladan had foretold, the day had dawned clear and beautiful. Perhaps it's an omen, Merry thought. He stood with his eyes closed, the sun warm on his face, and rubbed his forehead, feeling the ache there start to recede. A cool cloth over his eyes would help lessen the remaining pain. Merry yawned, then rinsed out a cloth in the washbasin and returned to his bed, laying down with the wet fabric over his face. It's past second breakfast, he thought idly. We haven't eaten for near a day. I wouldn't have believed it possible. Just then, his stomach rumbled loudly and he pressed a fist into his midsection, trying to muffle the gurgles.
Merry hastily removed the washcloth and turned his head to find Pippin's anxious face peering into his. "Did I wake you, Pippin-lad?" he asked comfortingly. His stomach chose that moment to make another unrestrained complaint, and Merry scowled and stifled a groan.
Pippin sat up and rubbed at his eyes. "How's Frodo?"
Merry followed suit, using the washcloth on his face. His entire body felt gritty and he thought longingly of a hot, soapy bath. "Sam's gone off to see. He'll be back as soon as he knows."
Pippin kicked the blankets to the floor and ran his hands through his hair, resulting in tangled curls that made his hair look like a half-plucked chicken had sat on his head. "I can't wait that long. Let's go find out for ourselves."
"All right," agreed Merry. "After a wash and a change, that is." As Pippin dove for fresh clothing, Merry felt his heart lift. It's over. It's all over. Frodo will be all right now. Merry's heart swelled as he thought of the Shire, of Buckland. His parents. He missed them with a pain that was almost physical. Their families would be desperate for word of them. There would have to be explanations, followed by apologies. Probably followed by punishments. Severe punishments. Merry did not care. He would muck out his father's stables for the rest of his life if he could just see their faces again. We'll be home soon. As soon as Frodo is strong enough to travel, we can go home… Our part in this is finished, and I'm glad of it. We can all of us go home.
"Merry! Let's go!" Pippin stood in the open doorway, more or less washed and dressed. With the first carefree laugh he had uttered since arriving in Rivendell, Merry hurried after him.