Merry finally pushed back his plate and sighed. It was a deep, contented sigh, a long exhalation with half-closed eyes and a mouth slightly upturned, as only a hobbit can give after a full and satisfying meal. Not that all the meals here hadn't been excellent, Merry thought contentedly, rubbing his slightly protruding stomach. Rivendell was altogether a marvelous place with its spectacular waterfalls, riven mountains and breathtaking elven architecture, but the Great Hall, where meals were usually served, was his favorite spot.
Sitting next to his cousin on a chair piled high with cushions, Pippin burped slightly and then hastily covered his mouth with a hand when Merry glowered at him. The bright morning sun slanted in through the high windows and a generous spread at second breakfast was making the tweenager sleepy. "'Scuse me. That was wonderful. Sam, do you think Frodo would eat this custard, if we took him some?"
Perched on his own cushions across from the cousins, Samwise squinted at the three very empty bowls once containing custard that the young hobbit had consumed and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "He might. He's almost as fond of custard as you are, Mr. Pippin. Turned up his nose at the porridge the cook sent him this mornin' though."
Merry slid down his pile of cushions to his feet and picked up his plates and dishes and the special hobbit-sized cutlery that Lord Elrond had ordered carved for his guests. Pippin had been willing to let the kitchen staff wait upon them, but Merry had insisted they do it themselves, much to the amusement of their elven hosts. "He's not going to get stronger if he doesn't eat," Merry muttered, carefully balancing his teacup and saucer atop the plates and bowls and knives and forks and spoons. "He hasn't eaten much since Lord Elrond's Council, almost a week ago. He's going to make himself sick, just when he's starting to feel better." Walking carefully, he moved to the large side-table outside the washing area and deposited them as the others followed suit.
"Not sure if custard is the best thing for him, really," Sam said dubiously. "I'd rather see him get down some eggs an' bacon, or a nice, thick stew. Something that would put a little meat back on his bones." Sam gazed sadly at his own empty plate, as if he wished he could show it to his master to demonstrate how a hobbit should attend to a meal. "Always has been a poor eater. Right odd for a hobbit – I remember Mr. Bilbo saying that. They used to have some dust-ups when Mr. Frodo wasn't feeling well and Mr. Bilbo wanted him 'ta eat."
"I was witness to a few of them," Merry laughed. "Each Baggins more stubborn than the other." He sobered and picked up two of the custard bowls from among the others on the sweets table, careful that the rich, yellow cream did not slide over the rims. "He should be waking up from his morning nap about now. Maybe Bilbo can coax some into him."
"If he can't," volunteered Pippin, "I'll eat it."
* * * * *
The hobbits knocked softly at the great wooden door of Frodo's rooms, and were not surprised when their eldest cousin opened it for them. Bilbo held his fingers up to his lips and grimaced towards the bedroom, a complicated pantomime which conveyed to them that Frodo was still asleep. Sam looked anxious at that and Bilbo laughed quietly. "It's all right, Sam. He and I were just catching up before his nap and I tired him out, I'm afraid."
Sam went to the bedroom door and peeked in at his master. Frodo lay quietly on his back, heavily bandaged shoulder elevated and his left arm raised slightly on a pillow. Sam was relieved to see his master's face composed and peaceful, free of the agony that he had borne for so long, ever since that dreadful night on Weathertop. Sam closed the door carefully and followed the other hobbits to the seating area. Sunlight streamed in through the balcony doors, spread wide to catch the last warmth of the end of October. Bilbo returned to his chair just in front of the balcony, where the sun could warm his old bones. Birdsong and the music of the waterfalls near and far drifted in, accentuating the crisp fall air and peace. Pippin went out on the balcony for a sniff of air, his sharp face relaxed and happy.
"Has he been in pain, sir?" Sam asked.
Bilbo shook his head. "Not too bad, I think. He's still slightly groggy from Elrond's sedatives. If you lads hadn't been there when that Man crawled over the balcony…"* The old hobbit trailed off, his lined features tightening in an echo of fear. "Well," he continued with an effort, "he's better now, just very sleepy. Keeps drifting off in the middle of a sentence. Makes it very difficult to take notes on your adventure, lads."
Another soft knock on the door alerted them to a visitor, and Sam opened it to admit the Master of Rivendell. They bowed and the tall Elf-lord greeted them gravely, yet another bottle of tonic in his slender hands. He smiled when he saw Pippin grimace on Frodo's behalf. "Your cousin may not care for the taste, Master Took, but this gives Frodo's body the nutrients he needs to recover. More than bowls of custard, actually." Pippin blushed and attempted to explain but Elrond forestalled him. "I have been informed of young Frodo's lack of appetite, little masters. I will speak to my head cook and see if he cannot prepare some foods more dear to a hobbit's heart than what is commonly served in Imladris."
"I can help with that," offered Bilbo, levering himself stiffly to his feet. "Sam, I'm turning the watch over to you." Sam nodded and Elrond handed him the bottle. "Tell Frodo I'll be back for tea," Bilbo instructed, "and he had better have finished that medicine and a decent elevenses and mid-day meal, or I'll know the reason why."
"Then I will ensure that he does so, Bilbo," came a new voice, and the hobbits turned in delight to see Aragorn in the still open doorway. The Ranger smiled at them and joined them by the bed. "Frodo has endured quite enough without suffering a tongue-lashing from you."
Bilbo snorted. "I'm sure my lad lives in terror of that, Dúnadan." The old hobbit moved slowly towards the door, Elrond's hand on his shoulder. Then Bilbo turned back at the young hobbits and the Man. "You will try to get him to eat, won't you?"
Aragorn nodded. "I have a new technique I am going to try, as scolding seems ineffective."
"What?" asked Pippin curiously.
Aragorn smiled wickedly. "Bribery."
* * * * *
"Oh, that was wonderful," said Merry blissfully, unbuttoning the last two buttons of his waistcoat.
"You said that at second breakfast, sir," said Sam.
"I did not," returned Merry. "Pippin did. Frodo, surely you can finish that slice of cheese."
"I couldn't manage another bite," their cousin protested, laying down his knife and fork with hands that shook slightly. "Truly, Merry."
Merry inspected Frodo's tray critically. "Two bites of bread, a nibble of cheese, an apple, one scone, a couple of spoonfuls of custard … that's not enough elevenses to keep a hobbit alive until luncheon. And after all the trouble Lord Elrond went to so you could have your favorite foods." Merry folded his arms and tried to level a forbidding stare at his elder cousin.
"I tried, Merry," Frodo protested wretchedly. "It just doesn't want to go down."
"That is all right, Frodo," Aragorn interjected, before Merry could continue to hound his cousin. "We do not want to force you." Sam scowled at him, perfectly willing to force Frodo had he dared. Ignoring Sam, Aragorn turned to the younger hobbits. "I would like to talk with Frodo for a while, my friends. May I ask you to leave us alone?"
Sam rose and started to gather up the elevenses trays and dishes and odds and ends for washing. Aragorn stopped him when he reached for Frodo's. "Leave it for a while, Sam. You three have enough to carry. You can collect it later."
When the others had left, Frodo looked at Aragorn inquiringly. "What did you wish to speak to me about, Aragorn?" He settled back against the pillows and the Ranger saw a quick flash of pain cross his face.
"Nothing of import, Frodo," the Man assured him. "I just have not seen much of you in the last few days. Would you like me to tell you a tale while you try another bite or two?"
Frodo looked up eagerly. "A tale? I really don't want any more food but I would gladly hear a tale."
Aragorn started to lift the tray from before Frodo but then he hesitated, as if a thought had suddenly occurred to him. Instead of removing it, he returned the tray to its previous position. "I have a proposition for you, my reluctant friend." Frodo eyed him silently. "A story if you eat that other scone and the pear. A song … a song if you eat the rest of the your custard." Frodo wrinkled his nose and looked at his tray doubtfully.
"Of course," Aragorn continued thoughtfully, "I would not dream of urging you to take more than you want. A pity, for I know many tales of wondrous feats and mighty heroes, of elven kings and ships that sail between the stars…"
"All right! All right!" said the hobbit, catching up his discarded fork and swirling a scone in the small pot of jam. Bright blue eyes gazed at the Ranger eagerly. Careful not to betray his sense of triumph, Aragorn leaned back in the chair and considered. "Would you like to hear the story of a great continent, bearing upon it the pinnacle of human civilization, that sank beneath the Sea in a single night?" At the hobbit's impatient nod, Aragorn drew a deep breath and began, "Long ago, in another part of Middle-earth…" and continued on while Frodo ate.
* * * * *
"I wish there were some way we could repay the Elves for their kindness," Pippin said wistfully. "They've been so nice to us. A Took always pays his due ... well, eventually," he added defensively when Merry raised an eyebrow at him. Evicted from Frodo's rooms to allow Aragorn to ply his strategy, the three had returned the dishes to the kitchen and ended up in the room shared by Merry and Pippin.
"Lord Elrond has no use for Shire coin, Pip," Merry declared. "No, it's got to be something that will show him how grateful we are. Something he couldn't get anywhere else…" He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach, staring thoughtfully up at the carved wooden beams of the ceiling.
"We could offer to help in the kitchens, I suppose," Pippin said with just a trace too much willingness.
"Or the gardens," Sam suggested. "I'd be right happy to get my hands into the soil here. These folk have been tending growing things for centuries and I could learn a lot… Did you see the size o' them marigolds?"
Merry shook his head. "Frodo needs you, Sam. And what labor we could give these grand folk would hardly make a difference. No … I was thinking of something the Elves would appreciate more than any work we could do for them."
"What, then?" asked Pippin a trifle warily.
Merry leaned forward and looped an arm around Sam's shoulders companionably. Sam looked at him suspiciously. "Sam, old friend," the young hobbit said eagerly, ignoring the sudden tension in the sturdy shoulders under his arm, "you know how to cook up your gaffer's special home brew, don't you?"
* * * * *
"Are you sure this is right, Sam?" Merry leaned over the crock and inhaled carefully. Pippin was not so cautious; an inquisitive sniff earned him a coughing fit and tearing eyes. A clear, dark liquid seethed and bubbled in a large stoneware butter-crock, emitting strong fumes that the open balcony doors were not succeeding in pulling from the room. Leading into and out of the container was an intricate and intimidating array of copper tubing, crowned by a large tin hood. The foundry-master had been rather surprised by the hobbits' request for tin sheets and copper tubing but had supplied them gladly, pleased that he could honor the Ring-bearer's kin. Sam and Merry had wrestled the crock into the fireplace and built a fire under it. Sam was now watching the crock carefully, keeping the concoction from actually boiling so that the vapors condensed in a tin cap the hobbits had fashioned and dripped down into the emptied tonic-bottle that Sam had added to the trays with the intention of returning it to Lord Elrond.
"Think so, Mr. Merry." Sam's round face scrunched up in thought as he counted off on his fingers. "Let's see now. Corn, yeast, malt, sugar, the water and a few blackberries. Them waterfalls ought to make the flavor something fine."
"I've never had your gaffer's home brew, Sam. Is it good?" Pippin rubbed his face – the aroma rising from the crock stung the inside of his nose and made his throat close. He was standing off to the side of the brew, as was Sam, but the smell found them anyway. Belatedly, he wondered if Sam and Merry should not have constructed the odd metal contraption out on the balcony instead of inside the room.
"It's not what you'd exactly call 'good,' Mr. Pippin," Sam stated after a moment's thought. "It's more … well…"
"Yes," agreed Merry. "It's … um …" He seemed to be at a loss for words, a most rare occurrence in Pippin's experience. "It's very strong, and rather … ah…"
"Then how do you know the Elves will like it?" asked Pippin reasonably.
To Pippin's annoyance, Merry and Sam exchanged a wry grin that smacked of superior adult knowledge. Sam shrugged. "It just kind o' grows on you."
Pippin eyed his elders distrustfully. "Well, at least they will certainly be surprised."
* * * * *
Pippin craned his head over the crock of distilling liquid carefully, keeping his distance from the complicated tubing while watching the quick drip of brown liquid. The tonic-bottle was nearly full, the result of a good hour of distilling. "The head cook certainly was startled when we wanted all that sugar," Pippin remarked idly. A particularly large bubble burst at that moment and the tweenager choked as the fumes rose around him.
"He'll be wanting the luncheon trays back, too," Sam remarked. "What if he notices we took the milk jug?"
"The head cook isn't going to be checking the trays to see if we filched any dishes, Sam," Merry replied with a touch of exasperation.
He ignored Sam's muttered, "He should, then," and asked a question of his own.
"Why blackberries, Sam?" Merry asked. "If we hadn't seen them growing in the hedge around the kitchen's herb garden, we'd never have found them."
Sam shrugged. "Me gaffer always swears there's got to be some blackberries. Don't know why." He leaned over the fermenting liquid and sniffed appreciatively. "Aye, the slop's comin' along right well."
"It doesn't look that bad, Sam," Pippin said reassuringly, afraid he'd injured the gardener's feelings with his coughing.
"No, Master Pippin," Sam replied with a laugh. "That's what you call the mash left in the still. You just add more water, sugar, malt an' corn meal to make another batch." He eyed it critically. "You can use the mash up 'ta eight times afore you have to toss it out."
"Wonderfully efficient, Sam," Merry commented. "Up to eight times, eh?"
"Mr. Merry," Sam said slowly, trying to fix the younger hobbit with a stern gaze while watching the crock, "brewing's not a thing 'ta be taken lightly. It can be dangerous. It requires time and practice, and a close eye. The still's got to be made just right, with no leaks where air can get in. The mash -"
Merry grinned and clapped Sam on the back. "Don't worry, Sam. I have no intention of stealing your da's special recipe. It would be much more productive to hire the Gaffer. He can train apprentices." Merry paused, humming to himself. "We can increase production by fermenting the brew, instead of distilling it. Sell it in stoneware jugs – good work for the Buckland potters... We'll probably have to send to Bree for some of the metalwork – maybe even to Dale. But we have all the ingredients in the Shire … lots of corn…"
"Mr. Merry –"
"Here's the first one done, Sam!" Pippin crowed, sliding out the small tonic-bottle and placing the milk jug under the dripping tubing without missing a drop. The hobbits gathered around the fruit of their labor and held it up to the light, admiring how the afternoon sun glinted through the liquid, like a fire seen through topaz.
A knock at the door startled them all. Merry motioned for Sam to keep feeding the fire and for Pippin to continue monitoring the drips, and answered the door himself. Aragorn stood there. The Ranger seemed surprised when Merry did not invite him in or open the door more than a few inches. "Frodo is asleep, Merry. I kept him entertained until he could stay awake not a moment longer. He was very tired and overfull and I think he will sleep until tea. But you might ask Sam if he would be available when his master wakes."
"Certainly, Aragorn," Merry replied. "I'll tell Sam. Thanks so much. That was very clever of you."
Aragorn nodded absently, lifting his head like a buck scenting the wind. "There is the oddest smell in the hallway. Is everything all right in there?" The Ranger's eyes narrowed as someone behind the inexplicably guarded door – almost certainly Pippin – squeaked. He impaled the young hobbit before him with a stern stare and lowered brows. Merry's face paled. "Merry," he said slowly, "Is there anything I should know about?"
Merry flashed him a brilliant, if wan, smile. "Know about? Of course not, Aragorn. Thank you for dropping by. My regards to the Lady Arwen, of course…" Still talking, Merry closed the door. Aragorn stood outside of it and sniffed again. He could have sworn … no, it was impossible. Though Meriadoc was certainly acting odd. Had that strange little noise come from Pippin? Aragorn thought he knew that sound; he had heard very similar yips before when something was happening that shouldn't. The Ranger wavered, arguing with himself. No, surely not.
Aragorn had almost reached the turning of the hallway when a sudden shattering blast of sound and vibration slammed him prone to the floor. Stunned for many seconds, all he was aware of was lying flat, his blood pounding in his ears. Struggling onto his back, he saw that the door to the hobbits' room, where he had stood not a minute before, had disappeared. Splintered timbers were imbedded in the opposite wall. Thick black smoke poured from the room, rolling and curling in upon itself.
Then there was no more time for observation. Aragorn pulled himself to his feet and ducked under the roiling smoke, throwing himself into the devastated room. "Merry!" he shouted. "Sam! Pippin! Where are you!" A few weak coughs were his only answer. His eyes blinded and burning from the smoke, Aragorn followed his ears. The Ranger's hands fastened around one small body, then a second. He could not see which of the hobbits he held, and it did not matter. One was still missing. He tucked them under his arms and ran out into the corridor, where Elves were already converging, buckets and containers of water in their hands. The Last Homely House was constructed mostly of wood, wood ages old, and flammable as last year's chaff left in the wheat fields.
Aragorn shoved the inert bodies into someone's arms and turned back to the blasted doorway. Another coil of smoke rolled out of the doorway, unwinding and flowing along the corridor ceiling almost like a living thing, like some sea-creature that undulated instead of swam. The man drew in a great lungful of air and plunged back into the dark depths. One more … one more. Where was the third?
Others had entered the room now; he could hear them calling back and forth. Smoke was billowing out the balcony doors, helping to clear the room a little. Remembering his training, Aragorn dropped to his knees and crawled, feeling before him and to the sides, hands serving where sight failed. The other two had been near the fireplace, but the third was not. Desperate, he dropped to his belly and lashed out with all four limbs, and was rewarded with a faint cry as his right leg impacted something soft and yielding. In a flash he had spun and caught up the limp form, and in a handful of seconds more, won his way to the door and out into the cleaner air of the hallway.
He could see now, Aragorn realized. The smoke had not turned the white of steam, of water poured upon fire, but instead was disappearing entirely. Spinning around on his heel, he peered into the room. Two Elves knelt before the shattered remains of the fireplace, fanning the thinning smoke away. At their instruction, others had had flung open every window not already opened and several flapped towels and bed sheets to urge the remaining smoke from the room. Aragorn stared uncomprehendingly. There had been no fire? But the smoke –
The small body in his arms coughed and Aragorn looked down at Merry's filthy face. Smudges and soot marred the hobbit's features, and his clothes reeked. Merry coughed again, then his eyes shot open and his hand grasped Aragorn's arm so tightly it hurt. "Pip – Pippin!" choked Merry, "Sam -"
"Are safe," Aragorn assured him, resisting the impulse to hug the hobbit to him. "As are you." He looked up to find Elrond kneeling on the floor, Pippin and Sam sitting up before him and coughing violently. One of the jars of water had been put to use to soak towels and his foster father was having the hobbits breathe through the wet cloth. Merry hacked and turned his head to spit into another of the cloths, and Aragorn pressed a mug of cold water into his hands when the hobbit's mouth was clear.
A tall shadow fell over them. Elrond's fine robes were stained and soiled, and his hands and face almost as smudged as the hobbits'. Looking past him, Aragorn could see Sam and Pippin climbing slowly to their feet, trying to brush off the clinging soot. Aragorn put Merry down and the hobbit rushed over to the other two, embracing them in a hug, all three of them laughing and crying both. A sigh returned his attention to his foster father. "Let them clean themselves up," Elrond said quietly. "Then I would see them in my study."
* * * * *
"Master Samwise's father's home brew," Elrond repeated, nearly an hour later.
"It was meant as a gift," Merry said earnestly. "To thank you for everything you have done for us." He paused and glanced at the other two for support. Pippin was white-faced and shaking, trying to stifle his sniffles. Sam was staring at the floor, his jaw clenched tight and his fists jammed into his pockets. Merry straightened and drew on his courage. "I am most frightfully sorry. It was entirely my fault. I should have seen that the still had developed a leak. It was only good fortune that the liquor ran into the fire and evaporated instead of spilling out onto the floor and setting the room afire."
The Master of Rivendell held the hobbit's eyes for many long moments. "What is good fortune," he said at last, "is that none of you were injured in the explosion. Samwise and Peregrin were sheltered by the stone mantle of the fireplace, I understand, but how did you escape harm?"
When Merry could but shake his head, Aragorn felt compelled to speak. He had sat silent as his lord questioned the hobbits and the whole story came out, but this he could answer. He cleared his throat and all of them glanced at him. "He wasn't in front of the fire, my lord. I had come to the door moments earlier to speak with them, and had just left. That is why I was there so quickly. Merry must have just turned away from the door, and was still out of the path of the blast."
"So," said Elrond, and was silent.
"I am so sorry," Merry said again, his voice very soft. "I will accept any punishment you give me. But please, do not send me home. Frodo needs me."
"My lord -" Aragorn began, intending to add his petition to Merry's. But Elrond shook his head.
"There was no great harm done, young hobbits," he said slowly. "Only linens that need to be washed and aired and furniture that must be cleaned. And a fireplace to be repaired and a door to be replaced." Pippin and Sam looked up, hope in their eyes. "You meant no harm, and only good in providing me a gift you thought would please me. I would not separate you from the Ring-bearer, who, as you most astutely pointed out, needs you.
"But I cannot allow this transgression to go unpunished. You might have caused serious damage to my House. I am sure you understand that." After a moment the hobbits nodded, unconsciously drawing closer together. The Elf-lord's dark eyes glinted. "Therefore, I am assigning you a duty. One of great import." Merry nodded, his expression determined, and Pippin and Sam followed his lead. "I require Estel's assistance with other matters. Therefore, you will take over the task of ensuring that Master Baggins takes his tonics and continues to eat and regain his strength. Towards that end, you will attend his every meal, and you will see that he eats everything on the trays I have prepared for him."
"Make Frodo eat and take his medicine?" Merry repeated rather blankly. "But -"
"If you do not," Elrond continued, riding over the young hobbit's words, "or fail in this duty, then I will be forced to take drastic measures."
Sam gulped, and dared to speak for the first time since being summoned to the Master's study. "Please, sir," he whispered, "what measures?"
Elrond leaned forward in his great chair and affixed the trembling hobbit with his fathoms-deep eyes that had seen whole civilizations of Men and Elves rise and flower and wither and fall. "Drastic ones," he hissed.
"Right, sir! Aye, sir!"
Elrond leaned back in his chair again. "Now you will go to Master Baggins and you will tell him what has happened today. You will see that he eats his tea. And dinner. All of it. And I do not expect to hear of such undertakings from you again, no matter your good intentions."
Aragorn held the door for the hobbits as they trooped out, heads hanging. When they had gone, he closed it, locked it, and slid down the door in a paroxysm of laughter. Elrond regarded his foster son sourly, until Aragorn's muffled shrieks of mirth sparked in him answering chuckles. "All right, all right," sighed the mighty Elf-lord, finally regaining control of his composure.
Still sitting on the floor, Aragorn stretched his long legs out before him and emitted a final gasp of laughter. "Oh, their faces!"
Elrond smiled. "Dúnadain bribing halflings and the Master of Rivendell threatening blackmail. These small folk have had a quite a remarkable impact on my House in just a few short days. I shudder to think of what they might accomplish during the Ring-bearer's recovery."
Aragorn drew up his knees and looped his arms comfortably over them. "Oh, I shouldn't worry, Father. How much trouble can four little hobbits get into?"
* "Intruder," by Budgielover