Title:  Between the Woods and Frozen Lake (3/?)     

Author:  Slipstream

Rating:  PG (for illness, non-sexual hobbit nudity, and brief animal violence)

Summary:  While traveling on horse-back across a frozen Shire to visit the Tooks for Yule, a sudden accident leaves Frodo on the brink of winter and a battle hardened Pippin to care for him. 

Notes:  Because PippinFrodo is one of the best under-appreciated parts of the fandom.  And because Frodo!Healing is always a good thing.  No major notes for this chapter.  There is, however, some accidental hobbit numerology.  If you spot it (and trust me, it's very obscure and probably only makes sense to me, so I doubt it), I'll give you a cookie. 

For everyone who has put up with my tardiness and still encouraged me on the way, and those who weren't so polite about it and kindly kicked me off of my butt.  I salute you. 

Paladin Took, Thain and Master of the Great Smials, was an extremely busy hobbit.  Since the arrival of a farmer bearing news of his son riding homeward with an injured Frodo Baggins, he had been orchestrating a team of healers and servants in preparation for their arrival.  Now he was fairly flying along the main corridor, shouting instructions to maids carrying hot water and blankets and pushing through the gaggle of concerned onlookers hovering near the entrance. 

He burst through the outer door that lead to the stables, the sudden blast of cold air taking his breath for a moment.  The little yard between the main Smials and the stable was a bustle with hobbits bearing torches—some servants doing their routine chores, others there to help light the way of the horse bearing his son and cousin. 

"Here!" he called, laying a hand on a nearby tweenager.  "Any news from the border towers?"

"None, sir," the lad replied, shifting his load of wood to one arm and pointing at the lookout post secured into the uppermost branches of a large tree at the edge of the courtyard.  A hobbit stood there, bundled up against the cold, peering off into the distance.  "If Bill sees anything, he'll give a wave and a shout, but 'til then we can do naught but wait."

Paladin nodded grimly.  "Good lad.  Send word the minute they are sighted."  The tween gave a slight bow and mumbled his assertions, then scurried off to bring his fagot of wood to the kitchens.  The Thain watched him go, caught in his own thoughts. 

"Paladin Took!" a gentle voice chided, and he turned to find the matronly figure of Sadie Burrows bustling towards him through the snow, clutching her tattered pink knit shawl about her head with one hand and holding his good winter cloak with the other.  "I'd have thought that bout of pneumonia when you were a lad was enough to teach you not to go out in the cold without proper clothing, but I seem to be mistaken." 

Paladin frowned but took the cloak.  "It isn't me you need worry about this night, Sadie."

She smiled slightly, and her gnarled old hand patted him on the shoulder.  "But I do worry, Paladin.  You are as much to me that irrepressible tween who kept trying to sneak out of his sickbed as you are Thain.  It is in my nature to worry for you."

He returned her smile, and Sadie Burrows could still see the mischievous fever-blushed cheeks of a tweenager grinning through the wrinkles of time.  "And who am I to deny you a bit of worry, eh?"

"A horse!  A horse!"  Paladin turned towards the outcry, and saw Bill the lookout waving his arms and shouting.  "My lord, a horse and rider approaches!"

The Thain brushed off the old healer in an instant, taking charge of the sudden flurry of activity.  "Watch them, Bill!  You there!  Lad!  Ready a stable!  And you!  Open the gates and make sure there are plenty of torches there to light their way!  Where are the blankets I asked to be brought?  Hurry, hurry!"

As the hobbits scurried to obey his commands, the sound of hoof beats on packed snow and mud became clearer and clearer.  As the Thain rushed for the gates, a chestnut pony emerged from the darkness, its gate a ragged trot, chest heaving, and hide slick with sweat.  It bore on its back two riders: Peregrin Took, his hair wild and his face as white as the snow, clad only in his shirt-sleeves and breeches, clinging tightly with one hand to the reins and with the other to Frodo Baggins, or rather, a large misshapen bundle of blankets and limbs that bobbed and swayed limply with each step.

Hobbits immediately surrounded the skittish pony.  Stable lads seized hold of the reins while stronger, taller hobbits reached up to steady the two slumped figures in the saddle.  Pippin seemed unaware of all that was going on around him.  He blinked stupidly for a moment at the sea of faces attempting to help him off of his mount, and it was only with some coaxing that he let loose his grip upon Frodo.  

"Come here, Master Pip," soothed Rotho, a burly farm hand known about the Smials as a champion bale-hurler.  The Thain had just two springs ago seen those tanned arms toss a bale of hay the size of a full grown hobbit twenty-five feet.  Now they gathered up Frodo and all his trappings with all the gentleness and care of a matron handling a newborn. "S'alright.  I've got 'im.  Take it easy, now…" 

"Rotho, take him inside.  Gammer Burrows will direct you to the sick room."  Rotho nodded and turned smartly back to the Smials, his gate not hindered by the burden he carried. 

Paladin turned back to the horse.  Two more hobbits, twins Jeb and Job, were easing his son out of the saddle, which made his descent more of a slow-motion fall than a dismount.  As soon as he had slid into their grasp they wrapped him in warm blankets and, with a nod to the Thain, carried him quickly back inside.

They made quite a parade as they wormed their way through the tunnels of the Smials.  Sadie Burrows led the way, still clutching her natty pink shawl as she nearly ran through the crowded corridors, shooing away onlookers left and right.  Rotho followed close behind, puffing a little to keep up with the old bird but still managing not to jolt his precious burden, followed by Jeb and Job carrying Pippin between them, who, judging by the mutterings, was beginning to regain some sense, with Paladin bringing up the rear.  They wound their way deeper and deeper into the earth, bypassing the main living areas and upper-class rooms.  At one point Paladin stopped to send a passing kitchen boy to bring news to Eglantine and their daughters and in doing so nearly lost the rest of their party, but at last he found them again after a few minutes frantic searching.

It was a small room in one of the more common guest wings.  It was deep inside the hill, so there was no window, but the four walls were made of sturdy brick and stucco.  The furnishings were minimal—one bed, a linen armoire, and a rather squashy lounge that was the current home to his blanket swaddled son—but the wall opposite the bed did boast a double-wide fireplace, already home to a blazing fire that warmed the little space very efficiently.  Sadie's youngest daughter was heating kettles of water to fill a copper tub with hot water.  The air was very steamy and smelled of herbs. 

"Paladin!  There you are!"  Sadie Burrows broke off from the hoard of hobbit lasses—all her daughters—hovering over the bed.  From the corner of his eye the Thain could see them stripping Frodo of his soaked things, placing compresses soaked in hot water on his head, chest, and groin, re-wrapping him in warm, dry blankets, and tucking heated bed stones at his hips and feet.  He worriedly noted the blue-gray tint to Frodo's skin and the swath of what appeared to be dried blood on his forehead.

"How is he?" he asked.  "How are they both?"

Sadie sighed, wiping her hands on her apron.  She beckoned him over to a small table next to the fire, where she poured a large cup of tea from a freshly steaming kettle.  "I've only had but a moment to glance o'er them both, but I think your son will be fine.  He's chilled, yes, but coherent and seemingly improving by the moment."  She sorted through a pile of paper packets scattered across the table, and selecting one, stirred its contents into the cup of tea.  "Here," she said, handing him the steaming mug.  "Have him drink this.  Calm him down and find out exactly what happened, and then I'll see to him."

Paladin nodded, and Sadie turned to rejoin her daughters around Master Baggins's sickbed.   Pippin was seated in the large lounge couch facing the fire, all swathed in blankets but for his miserable face.  He resembled more a cotton and gingham covered boulder than a hobbit, a boulder that quivered and quaked.  Paladin sat next to him, but Pippin did not turn to acknowledge him.  He only shivered.  Paladin Took sighed and, wrapping an arm around his son rather awkwardly, pressed the mug of steaming tea into his hands. 

"Here, drink this.  For Eru's sake, you're cold!  Trust my son to pick the coldest time of the year to go riding about half-naked."

Pippin said nothing.  He stared at the cup of tea but made no move to drink it, only sat rigidly and listened to the sounds the healers made as they tended Frodo in the background.

Paladin shook his head and pulled Pippin nearly into his lap, as if he were a child.  And he was, a small voice reminded him.  Though Peregrin Took exceeded his father in height by a good five inches, he was still years from his majority. 

The Thain tried to embrace his son, but it was like cuddling close to an old log.  Pippin was stiff and pale all over, his teeth bared in a hard line and his grip on the cup as strong as death.  Paladin stroked his back as soothingly as he could, wishing for a moment that he had spent more time with his children's nurse so that he might have a better grasp at the finer points of comforting bodily contact.  "Come lad, calm down.  Calm down.  Everything is going to be all right.  Now, do you think we could start by telling me what all happened?  Could you do that?"

Pippin maintained his vice-like hold on his cup, but he managed to nod his head.

 "All right.  Let's start from the beginning.  You left this afternoon to meet Frodo on the road, correct?"

"I…I…" Pippin stammered.  He took a great swallow of tea.  "Y-yes."

"When were you to meet him?  And where?"

"A-at mid-afternoon, w-where the Bywater trail rejoins the main road.  I waited there for him for some hours, but when he did not come…"  Pippin swallowed heavily.  "When he did not come, I followed the Bywater trail, thinking to meet him further up the road.  I…I found him at the bridge at Ederbourn Creek."

The Thain nodded.  "The farmer you sent ahead said that the stone bridge had collapsed.  Is this true?"

Pippin frowned.  "No… not the stone bit.  The base was strong as ever, though the middle washed away last spring.  The wooden bit what was built to span the gap rotted, I think.  There was a great…hole… there in the middle, where they fell."  He shuddered as he remembered the creaking of the wooden planks as they swayed innocently in the wind.  "Frodo I found face-down on a gravel damn downstream.  He was all bloody; I think he hit his head when he fell.  The horse made its own way to shore."  He forced himself to take a long drink of the tea he held.  Now that he was more coherent and could taste it, he was surprised to find it sweet, not bitter like medicine.

Paladin mused over the tale, stroking his chin with one hand in thought.  "Frodo you have brought back to us, but what of the horse?  Did you tether it somewhere?  Should I send some hands to retrieve it?"

"I'm sorry, Da.  The mare had a broken hind limb and ribs.  I had to…put her down."  The horse had not screamed when he'd killed her.  Pippin had been careful to make it as painless as possible.  But there were other horses, at other places in his recent memory, that had died shrieking terribly, groans and moans mixing in with those of the men as the noise of battle raged around them.  Pippin's sword had drawn blood those nights.  And Frodo…  Frodo…

Frodo had nearly died without a sound, as well.

He suddenly felt as if all his limbs were made of water, and he was surprised to find himself shaking with more than cold as he fisted away bitter tears.

"There there… Shh… shh… it's all right…"  Paladin rubbed soothing circles across his son's back, drawing him into a tighter embrace.  "You did what you had to do.  There are times when it is better to kill a thing than let it suffer so in mortal agony."

"Oh, bugger the horse!" he shouted, startling one of the maids so that she nearly dropped a kettle into the fire.  "Frodo!  Oh, Frodo… He… He…"

Paladin stared at his son, shocked.  Pippin swallowed heavily and buried his face in his fists.  "He was dead!" he sobbed, as surprised at his outburst as his father.  "He weren't breathing and I thought surely he had gone but I wasn't about to let him leave me without a proper goodbye, so I fought him, I fought him until he breathed again, but it's no use!  He'll die here as sure as he was nearly dead out there, and all our efforts to keep him safe and happy will be for nothing!"

"Oh…Pippin…"  The young Took sagged into his father's embrace, swallowed whole by bitter tears.  "But you did save him!  He is here, where it is warm and safe, and he is alive, and he has you to thank for it. 

"But we weren't there," the young Took whimpered.  "Not when it mattered.  Not when hope was lost and the world was at the brink of despair.  Only Sam was there for him then, Sam and that miserable curse of a creature from Bilbo's old tales.  Where were Merry and I?  In the halls of kings, with dry beds and wine and fellowship.  We failed him then, and though he lived the Frodo that came back to us was not our cousin.  I tried, Papa.  I tried to bring back the old Fro, but even I am not the same any more, and now I will loose this Fro, too.  Oh, Sam will kill me in despair…" 

The Thain was more than slightly confused by his son's words.  There were details of their travels that he was still not privy to.  The door to the sickroom banged open, and Paladin glanced up in time to see his wife whisk into the room, her face flushed from running and her calico skirts swaying madly about her. 

"Pippin!" she cried, and nearly shoved her husband aside in her race to her only son.  "Oh, Pippin, thank goodness you're safe!"  Pippin allowed himself to be embraced by his mother, but was largely silent.  Outside the door of the sickroom his sisters hovered nervously. 

Sadie murmured a few instructions to her daughters, then joined the little family reunion.  "Elgantine…Young Pippin is exhausted and needs rest.  Why don't you take him to his room where he can lie down?"

Pippin looked up sharply.  "No!"  His mother startled as he struggled to his feet, nearly falling over as he put weight on the numb limbs.  But even as he staggered he stood tall and fierce, his eyes determined.  "I won't leave Frodo now, not ever.  I shan't return to my quarters until he is well enough to join me there.  I'll keep him in my sights, for now."

"But you must have rest!" Sadie insisted.  Peregrin stood firm.  Elgantine and her three daughters looked at the two of them worriedly.   A tea pot whistled to life in the fireplace, and Elsa, Sadie's middle daughter, rushed to tend it.  It seemed neither Traveler nor healer would back out of the contest of wills.  Sadie paused, considering for a moment, then nodded as she came to a decision.

"All right then.  You needn't return to your room, but you must have rest and sleep.  Don't be hasty to object!  You will not go far from your companion.  The guest room next to this one is empty as well; I had two prepared in case you were in worse shape than you are, and it is warm and close so that I can keep an eye on your breathing, as well.  And should you feel the urge to check in on Frodo, you can pop your head around the corner in an instant, not tax yourself by crossing the whole of the Smials only to say hello."

Pippin stood defiant for a moment more, then bowed his head in resignation, mumbling something about how Sadie wasn't the first to call him hasty.  With the help of his mother, he made his way to the door, wincing as each step returned feeling to his lower extremities.  He paused by Frodo's bedside and looked long into his cousin's still face, his expression a mix of despair and something unrecognizable.  He bent and placed a gentle kiss on his cousin's brow, smoothing back the unruly curls.  It was then that Sadie realized what she had seen on his features: love.

The Tooks left the room, but Sadie stopped the Thain before he could leave.  "A moment, sir, if you will.  I have something I feel you must see."

The Thain nodded and closed the door before following the old healer back to the bed.  The figure of Frodo Baggins seemed unnaturally small in the midst of all his wrappings, hardly recognizable as a hobbit.  He looked into the sharp face and frowned.  "He has not gained weight since I saw him last.  This worries me."

"I've not seen a hobbit this thin since the rebels were freed Michael Delving," Sadie agreed.  "But that is not what I wished to show you.  Look."  With the aid of one of her daughters, she gently rolled Frodo onto his side and pulled back the layers of blankets to expose his back.

Palladin's gasp was quiet but sharp, as alarmed and outraged as the face of Sadie Burrows.  Whip marks as thick as a child's wrist crisscrossed in an angry spider's web across the narrow expanse of skin and ribs.  Against the gray-blue skin shadowed by pain, they stood out like slices of red flame.

Anger burned through the Thain with a force he had not felt since the first coming of the ruffians.  "Who did this to him?  And why?"

Sadie was quiet for several moments as she tucked Frodo back into his linens.  "You would know better than I.  Those marks are not new, but nor are they old, and they come from no parent's switch or farmer's whip.  I guess them to be around six months old, and badly healed at that.  Something foul belayed Master Baggins during his long absence, though what, exactly, I am loath to say."

The room seemed suddenly dimmer as Paladin remembered the brown scar that marred the brow of his best friend's son.  "Orcs…" he whispered.

Sadie looked up.  "Pardon?"

He waved her away.  "Nothing.  An old hobbit's musing, that is all."

She frowned, perhaps sensing that there was more left unsaid, but she pursued it no further.  "Those are not the only scars, however, and all of them are roughly as old as those on his back.  There is the missing finger, of course, but there are also multiple burns on his legs and feet, a line around his neck as if a chain had hung there for an eon, and a strange mark on the back of his neck that I have never seen the likes of.  I would think it a bite or a sting, if not for the size of it."

The Thain frowned.  "Some of those marks I can explain, but others are mysterious to me.  I am afraid that I do not know the full extent of all that happened to Frodo on his journey.  My son was scarce enough on the details of his own adventures, much less those of his companions."

Sadie nodded absently.  She stroked the thin face that lay so eerily still on the down pillow with an aged hand, and for a moment Paladin through he saw two strange and conflicting images: one of a young mother soothing away the nightmares of her newborn babe, the other of two great forces of light fading into the cosmos.  He blinked purposefully, and the apparitions were gone, leaving only a very old gammer and one of his son's dearest friends lying at the brink of death. 

"But what of now?" he asked.  "What can we do for him now?"

Sadie patted Frodo on the head, letting her fingers linger on his brow to feel his temperature.  She stood and turned to face the Thain, and all tenderness was gone from her face, leaving her proud and steady.  She stood like a great tree of the old forest, immovable, with roots so deep they could be felt, and Paladin doubted any axe of hobbit or men or orc could fell her.

"Now?  Now we keep him warm, and fed, and dry, and comforted.  We give him companionship and merriment, what we can this Yule, and we watch him very closely.  I am not promising that he will recover, but I shall say that we will not give him up without a fight."

"Mother," a soft voice interrupted.  Enola Burrows curtsied nervously in front of the Thain, then spoke again to her mother.  "The herbal bath is ready."

Sadie smiled at her wearily.  "Thank you, dear."  Enola curtsied again, then scurried off, her cheeks in a high blush.

"I take it that this is my signal to take my leave," said Paladin.

"It is.  Go.  See your wife and children, and make sure that boy of yours stays in his bed until I say that he can leave.  No doubt he has inherited some of your opinions on bed rest."  She smiled at him fondly as she shooed him out the door, which she closed firmly as soon as he had left.

"Mama?"  Her three daughters were looking at her questioningly, a glimmer of fear lurking around their tense faces.  "Did you mean what you told the Thain?  Is Master Baggins going to die?"

Sadie felt a rush of emotion overtake her for a moment.  She did not know why.  Frodo Baggins was virtually a stranger to her, a face she had seen only a few times during holidays.  But the memory of what foul things decorated the hobbit's skin danced before her eyes, and she bit back tears.  She straitened herself, and became the fiery warrior she had been as a lass.

"I meant what I said about not giving him up without a battle.  Come!  Ester, Elsa, Enola—it will take the four of us to move him to the bath."