Disclaimer: All original plots and original characters are the property of the author. The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien Enterprises, and New Line Cinemas and their licensees. These works were produced with admiration and respect, as fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, not for sale or profit.
Shadows of a Nameless Fear
Chapter One – In the Halls of the King
The smallest Knight of Gondor threw up his hands in frustration. His eldest cousin was, without exception, the most irritating, infuriating, irrational hobbit in all of Middle-earth. Not to mention an exceptionally good hider. Pippin had looked every place he could think of, and had not been able to locate even one hair from the Ring-bearer's woolly head.
Of course, Pippin, reflected, it was only due to Frodo—and Sam—that Middle-earth was still here to be infuriating in. The fact that Pippin was still alive he owed to his cousin, as well as his freedom, and every blooming flower and singing bird in Minas Tirith … or anywhere else in the world. With a sigh, Pippin sank down against the sun-warmed stone along the parapet's guard walk, drew up his knees and cradled his chin on them.
"No luck?" Merry dropped opposite his cousin and leaned back against the wall of the great tower.
"No," Pippin scowled, tugging at his uniform. "He's found a good, deep hole this time."
"Well, he's got to turn up for this banquet," Merry muttered. "He's the guest of honour, after all. Can't have the guest of honour ducking out. And disobeying the King's direct command to attend."
"Tell him," Pippin returned resentfully.
Merry crossed his arms and frowned, thinking. Having exhausted his own resources, Pippin left him to it. He took off his helmet and tilted his head up to watch the circling birds absently, so high above the city they looked like black dots. Like little currants in a scone, Pippin decided, rubbing his stomach. Teatime had been nearly two hours ago.
Pippin looked about them, confused. Their friend was nowhere in sight. "Where?"
Merry sprang to his feet, reaching across the walk to pull his cousin up with him. "We can't find Frodo. We can find Sam. He's in the Courtyard of the White Tree, helping lay out the new flowerbeds. We make Sam tell us where Frodo is."
Pippin glanced over the edge of the parapet and hastily wrenched his gaze back to the solid wall of the tower behind Merry, fighting down a surge of dizziness. The Men labouring below them looked like ants. He couldn't possibly pick out Sam from this height, anyway. Merry, he noted, had prudently stayed on the opposite side of the walk, as far away from the edge as he could.
"Maybe Sam doesn't know," Pippin ventured.
"How do we make Sam tell us?" Pippin asked, examining his arm where Merry had pinched.
"Well…" this query seemed to derail Merry's train of thought. "We're bigger than he is, now. And there's two of us."
Pippin considered this. "Do you want to try to force it out of him? You go right ahead. I'm very fond of having my arms attached to my body."
Merry thought about that for a moment. "Right. Yes, you have a point." He slid back down against the wall and hugged his knees. "We have looked everywhere Frodo might be—"
"His room, the library, the archives, baths, kitchens, courtyards and gardens, all the pantries, bakeries— "
Merry interrupted the list. "So we look where he might not be." Pippin looked at him blankly. "We look the last place he would think we would think to look for him," Merry elaborated, pleased with his own cleverness.
Pippin was silent for a moment, working that out. Then his brow furrowed with worry. "The Tombs of the Stewards," he said softly.
- - -
Frodo looked up from the book he was reading to scowl at them. He was seated cross-legged on one of the great marble tombs, his back wedged against the carved effigy of a long-departed ruler of Gondor. Pippin squinted at the plaque bearing the long-dead Steward's name and the years of his stewardship, but the words were obscured by dust and the passage of time. The tomb was quite far back along the long, silent corridor, and Pippin's heart had sunk deeper the farther they were forced to go into this house of death. He would not have crossed the threshold, had not Merry been so certain they would find Frodo here.
He and Merry both had detoured around the scorch mark burned into the marble floor near the entrance; averting their eyes as they passed it. Scrubbing could not remove it and with all the demands on the city's stonemasons, there had not been time to chip out the damaged marble and replace it with new. The floor would bear the stain of Denethor's madness until the marble could be repaired. Pippin shuddered and Merry patted his arm reassuringly.
"Aragorn might have given us the freedom of the city, but why would Frodo choose this place?" Pippin whispered. "It is locked up and only the Lord of the City or those bearing the tokens of the tombs and tending the houses of the dead come here. I wasn't sure they were going to let us in, despite the King's command."
"That is exactly why," Merry replied.
Frodo watched them approach resignedly, balancing the huge, Man-sized book on his knees. He sat with his cloak tucked beneath him, and only a small lantern to provide illumination in the cold, gloomy hall. The light from the little lantern threw flickering shadows on the polished stone and Pippin bit his lip against memories of fire and desperate fear. Marble might be pretty, Pippin thought, unconsciously crowding closer to Merry, but it was cold. Cold against the feet and cold against the heart.
Frodo sighed and closed the book. "Found me, did you? Hopefully without enough time to dress for the banquet."
"Wrong, Cousin!' Merry replied cheerfully. "Come on, you're caught. Let's go."
Frodo lay the book down and slid to the edge of the marble slab. With a push, he launched himself off the edge. Instead of landing on his feet, his legs buckled and Frodo fell heavily to his hands and knees, sprawling on the frigid floor with a stifled cry.
"Frodo! Are you all right?" Merry dashed to his side and fastened his hands around Frodo's arms, crouching down next to him to raise Frodo up on his knees and cradle his cousin against his body. "You're as cold as ice! How long have you been sitting here in this freezing place?"
Frodo did not reply for a moment. "I… I don't know," he murmured softly, leaning against Merry. Frodo was shivering, Pippin saw, and hurried to untie his cloak and drape it over his cousin.
"Have you had any tea?" Merry pressed. Frodo shook his head vaguely. "Luncheon? Elevenses? Second breakfast? Frodo, have you eaten at all today?"
"I… I don't…"
"Foolish hobbit," Merry scolded, exchanging a worried glance with Pippin over Frodo's bowed head. "You shouldn't have walked so far. Do you want to be taken back to the Houses of Healing? The Warden believes you left before you were strong enough, and I think I agree with him." Frodo made some inarticulate denial, but he continued to tremble. Merry's voice softened and he wrapped his arms around his cousin, careful of injuries not yet fully healed. "This marble must make those scars hurt, and it is glacial in here. Do you want to make yourself ill?"
Clicking his tongue disapprovingly, Merry slowly raised Frodo to his feet, keeping his arms tight around his cousin's waist until Frodo could stand. Pippin edged under Frodo's shoulder, having to bend slightly to do so. He could feel his cousin shivering through his jacket and both their cloaks, his bones seeming about to rattle out of his too-thin form. Frodo sagged against him for a moment then his back straightened and he stepped shakily away from his concerned kin.
"Cousin—" Pippin murmured, reaching out to steady him.
"Pip," Merry said softly, "Go get someone to carry him. Is Beregond on duty?"
"I don't need to be carried," Frodo snapped. "I walked across Mordor, for stars' sake! I think I can manage the road back." He took a step past them and halted, swaying on his feet.
"Frodo!" Both young hobbits leaped forward and caught Frodo as he started to collapse. He hung in their arms for a moment, panting. "Ahhhhh," Frodo moaned involuntarily.
"Forget Beregond, Pip," Merry ordered his cousin. "Go straight to the Warden. Tell him we need a litter. Frodo's going back to the Houses of Healing."
Pippin glanced between them, obedience to both warring on his unhappy face. He drew away from Frodo and stood quivering, literally pulled between the two cousins he loved best. Seeing this, Frodo's adamant expression softened and he leaned forward to place a trembling hand on Pippin's shoulder.
"I am all right," Frodo murmured. "I just sat too long in a cold place. Takes me a moment to warm up." He shuddered deeply, then tried a smile. Pippin thought it looked ghastly. "You two cluck like a couple of old hens," Frodo chuckled, starting to rub his fingers together to warm them. He gasped and jerked as the stub on his right hand stabbed agonizingly.
"Well, you are going to have a hot bath before dressing," Merry said decisively, pretending not to have seen Frodo flinch. "And a little something strengthening before the banquet."
"We'll be late," Frodo protested. "After tracking me down and hauling me off—against my will, I might add—I would think you would want to be on time."
"They can wait," Merry retorted, his tone almost angry. "They can all just bloody wait."
Frodo smiled in spite of himself, and the pain-lines at the corners of his eyes eased. "Merry, don't fuss. I am quite all right." Still objecting, he accompanied his cousin out into the light, Merry's strong arm around him.
Pippin darted back and retrieved the book, knowing that most uncharacteristically, Frodo had forgotten about it. He turned the heavy tome over in his hands and followed his cousins outside. By the shining light of the spring sun, he read the title embossed on the cover with a sinking heart, Funeral Customs of Gondor.
- - -
"I am not eating that," Frodo muttered to Sam. The two Ring-bearers were seated on a high dais which raised them even with the Big People at the High Table. They sat at the right hand of the King, and next to them were seated two unusually small knights in the formal livery of Gondor and Rohan. On the other side of the King sat Gandalf, and Legolas and Gimli. The end seat next to Gimli was empty, the fine table service laid before it and its goblet filled. On the plate was a single white blossom, harvested from the White Tree in memory of the one who should have occupied this seat.
The banquet hall gleamed with the finest white linens (still smelling slightly of mothballs) and glittered with a table service of silver chased with gold. Sometime between the battle of Pelennor Fields and Aragorn's triumphant entering of Minas Tirith, the King had found time to order that scaled-down knives and forks and spoons be made for the hobbits. Frodo used his beautifully detailed, custom-made fork to poke the quivering translucent blob on his plate.
"Me neither," agreed Sam briefly, giving his own blob a poke.
Aragorn leaned slightly to his right, smiling at the Harad ambassador as he made a great show of admiring the disgusting thing on his plate. "That is a sea slug, Frodo," the King hissed from the side of his mouth. "It is considered the greatest of delicacies in the South. These were brought to Minas Tirith at enormous cost and effort to honour the Ring-bearers. Eat it."
"I can see its innards," Sam observed. "It looks like things are still moving in there. Are you sure it's dead?"
Legolas leaned past Gandalf to study the delicacy on Aragorn's plate. "I am happy that those … things … are so precious they are reserved for the Ring-bearers and the King," the elf commented. "I am grateful not to be honoured so." Gimli, at Legolas' side, grunted agreement and took a swig from his goblet.
"Aye," the dwarf agreed curtly. "We will suffer through with meat hot off the bone. You can have those—" a sharp elven elbow in the ribs made Gimli revise his description and also lower his voice, "—delicious-looking … morsels."
Few of the feasters grasped why the King had desired the number of seats at his Table this night to be nine, but all those seated there understood. Between the talk and laughter, Aragorn's eyes moved slowly over his friends, remembering and treasuring each face. They were all here, Aragorn thought, save one. He had not been able to lead one home. Yet his and Mithrandir's goal had been accomplished. Feeling the King's eyes upon him, Gandalf looked up and in those sparkling eyes the King saw both joy and pride. They had done it, he and Gandalf. What that they had set out to do, they had done.
A laugh from the table nearest the High Table caught his notice, and he smiled. Faramir was shaking his head, laughing at some comment of Prince Imrahil's. The new Steward of Gondor was paying only intermittent attention to the conversations around him, preferring instead to stare blissfully at Éowyn of Rohan seated a few places down the table. The White Lady of Rohan was sitting one place down from Éomer King, who was mercilessly enjoying watching his sister's cheeks colour with roses each time her gaze met with Faramir's.
"You haven't eaten yours," Frodo commented, returning the King's attention to the issue at hand by leaning over to look at Aragorn's plate.
Aragorn flushed. "I am about to. I'm just working up my … er…"
"Nerve?" Frodo supplied.
"Appetite," Aragorn said firmly. He grasped his knife and laid it against the shuddering mass. The hobbits watched attentively. The sharp knife split the external membrane and a gooey, slightly pink gel oozed out onto Aragorn's plate. The King's face paled.
"Go on then," Frodo encouraged maliciously.
"You tried to get us to eat them bugs and bark enough times," Sam commented. "Let's see you put your money where your mouth is. Sir. Your Majesty."
Aragorn watched the gel slither across his plate. It slopped against the rim and began immediately congealing. In a sudden, convulsive movement, he snapped to his feet with his hand around his goblet. "A toast!" he cried. "A toast to the saviours of Middle-earth! To the Ring-bearers!"
In one accord, the distinguished guests rose to their feet and raised their own goblets. "The Ring-bearers!" echoed the lords and ladies of Gondor, the Rohirric knights, the assorted ambassadors, emissaries and officials. The King raised his cup to his lips and drained the last of his wine. When he sat down again, there were three sea slugs on his plate. The Ring-bearers were busily applying themselves to their food.
"I'll get you for this," the King muttered under his breath as the ever-attentive serving staff poured him more wine. He smiled at the Ambassador again.
"You can try," Frodo rejoined gleefully, then followed this challenge with a tremendous sneeze. "I beg your pardon!"
"Are you quite all right, Frodo?" asked Gandalf, leaning behind the King to gaze narrowly at the hobbit.
"He's been sneezing and coughing ever since Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin brought him in," Sam informed the wizard as Frodo was unable to reply, having buried his nose in a handkerchief.
"We found him in the Tombs of the Stewards," Merry leaned forward slightly to whisper around the other diners. "He was half-frozen and I think he's falling ill."
Frodo coughed. "I am not! Merry, be quiet. Sam, you too."
"He's short-tempered," Pippin observed from the safety of Sam's far side. "He always gets quarrelsome when he's getting sick."
"Who is getting sick?" asked Arwen, her elven hearing easily allowing her to distinguish conversations held at the High Table amongst the babble of the noisy feast-hall. At her question, Elrond broke off his conversation with Prince Imrahil and leaned forward, his piercing gaze centred on the guest of honour.
"Pippin," said Frodo quickly, pointing down the table.
"Frodo," Gandalf confirmed. "Did you have your tonic today, my lad?"
"Pippin has been looking rather peaky," Frodo continued, ignoring both Gandalf and that the leg of his chair was being kicked, the awkward assault hiddenby the tablecloth. Sam was staring straight ahead with a fixed smile, determined to ignore the dispute between cousins. His chair rocked slightly as Pippin missed.
"I think he needs a tonic, Lord Elrond," Frodo continued ingenuously. "The poor lad is—"
A sound to Frodo's left made all conversation cease as they looked at the King. "After you make one for Aragorn," Frodo continued. "Even a hungry hobbit has more sense than to eat that," he whispered to Sam as the King gagged and frantically emptied his goblet.
* TBC *