This story is dedicated to Claudia and Lilybaggins, who inspired me with enticing plot bunnies.
DISCLAIMER: Professor Tolkien's wonderful characters don't belong to me; I just get to think about them day and night.
Keep Him Secret, Keep Him Safe
Chapter One: Without Warning
And indeed the love that the horses of the Rangers bore for their riders was so great that they were willing to face even the terror of the Door, if their masters' hearts were steady as they walked beside them. 'The Passing of the Grey Company', The Return of the King
Mixed companies of Northern and Southern Rangers guarded the field of Cormallen, and patrolled a wide area covering many miles. Several Men assigned north of the encampment that morning were delighted to catch a glimpse of Lord Aragorn on his great horse, one arm securely about the waist of the Ring-bearer seated in front of him. They counted themselves lucky indeed to be treated to such a sight, and kept a discreet distance. They would ensure that nothing -- not even their own presence -- would disturb these two.
It was late afternoon when Frodo recognized the distinctive boulder-strewn meadow they had passed earlier in the day. Just as they reached it, Roheryn stopped. Aragorn dismounted, then lifted Frodo down to the ground.
"Does he read your mind?" Frodo asked, only half joking. "I never hear you telling him when to stop, and with no bridle, you have no reins to guide him."
With great fondness, Aragorn stroked the mighty steed's nose. "Over many years, he and I have learned one another's ways, and he responds to the slightest touch of knee or hand... or heart." He murmured softly in Elvish, and the horse wandered a short distance to drink from the stream and crop the sweet, flower-studded grasses.
Frodo wriggled his toes in the soft, cool ground and and took a deep breath of the springtime fragrance of Ithilien, which he loved. He was wearing comfortable clothes of Gondorian style, brought by Merry to Cormallen when summoned from the City. The cream-colored shirt and brown trousers were not a perfect fit, and had doubtless belonged to a child, but they were well made, and both he and Sam were grateful to finally have something soft and clean to wear.
Aragorn, too, was dressed in simple garments. He was armed, but wore no encumbering mail.
"We rode many miles today," Aragorn said. "Are you feeling sore? I know you would have ridden easier with saddle and stirrups, but Roheryn has been forced to wear too much gear of war recently."
"Of course I'm sore!" Frodo laughed. "Bouncing up and down on a horse isn't easy. But I asked to do this, remember? This has been wonderful. Besides, his gait is very smooth… for an oliphaunt!"
Chuckling, Aragorn reached into his pack and removed a wrapped parcel containing what remained of cold meats, fruit, and bread, which he handed to the hobbit.
"There are so many people at camp," Frodo said, "it's difficult to find a quiet place to think – except for the grove where our tent sits. And you and I hadn't time to really talk together since... well, before that last day on the River." He settled himself comfortably beside the stream, and Aragorn joined him.
How long had it been, Frodo wondered, since he could truly relax and enjoy his surroundings, without fear of being hunted, suffering hunger or thirst, weariness or pain? Without the Ring clouding his decisions and darkening his thoughts, with no other future than death at the end of a long road? He could still scarcely believe it was over. And the news that his friend would be King had filled him with delight.
There wasn't a doubt in Frodo's mind that he would have trusted 'Strider' even without Gandalf's letter, and felt only joy when he saw the respect with which Aragorn was treated in camp. The esteem he felt for this Man, who could have taken the Ring from him at any time and forced all of Middle-earth to accept his lordship, was difficult to express; but Aragorn seemed to understand that hobbits oftentimes spoke lightly when their hearts were full.
"But I've been doing almost all the talking today," Frodo observed. "You'll have to learn to chatter a bit more now that you're King." He frowned slightly. "You're still not eating anything?"
Aragorn shook his head. He hadn't had much of an appetite for several days, not even during the feast at which the Ring-bearers were honored. He hadn't thought that anyone had noticed.
Frodo put down a piece of bread and looked closely at his friend. "You don't look well," he announced. "Maybe we shouldn't have come out here."
"Neither of us are fond of crowds, Frodo. Perhaps, like you, I just needed a day away from camp." Aragorn stretched his arms and back. He was feeling "off his feed", as the Bree hobbits said.
"The weather is turning," Frodo remarked, distracted by the sky.
"I know," Aragorn replied. "We shouldn't linger; as soon as you have rested, we must continue back to camp. It isn't far now."
Frodo nodded and ate, enjoying the splashing sound of the stream and the joyous singing of birds.
"How did you sneak away from your guards?" Frodo teased. "I rarely see you without Rangers at your side."
"That is why we set out so early this morning," Aragorn said with a smile. "However, I did leave word of our plans with Legolas, Éomer, Imrahil, and Gandalf; it was only prudent."
"I told Sam. I couldn't just disappear and leave him wondering where I had gone."
"Of course not." Aragorn looked up again, watching the sky with concern. Dark clouds were massing, and the gentle breeze was picking up. "Come. We have only five or six miles yet to ride, but we should have arrived back an hour ago instead of exploring that last valley. The storm is approaching faster than I anticipated. Sam will not thank me when you return drenched with rain."
Frodo looked around, reluctant to leave such a beautiful place. The stream ran clear and fresh from the north, from the very waterfall to which Faramir had taken him and Sam. Large trees and boulders of interesting shapes studded the ground, and the new grasses were green and soft.
"Sam would love this," Frodo sighed contentedly. "If there's no longer a danger from Orcs or anything else, I'll bring him here."
"I agree, he would be glad of this sight. Just let someone know if you choose to wander about." Aragorn stood up and rubbed his temples against a dull, throbbing ache. "Are you up to walking this far?"
"Yes," Frodo said firmly. "That lovely sleep Gandalf said you put us into -- and whatever else you did -- seems to have healed much of our hurts. There are just a few things that..." He looked up in alarm. "What's wrong?"
Suddenly overcome with dizziness, Aragorn had staggered slightly. He collapsed to his knees next to Frodo, his breathing coming fast and hard as he fought back the urge to be sick. However, the nausea washed over him in waves until he couldn't fight it any longer, and succumbed to convulsive vomiting. Finally spent, he knelt panting, feeling incredibly weak.
Frodo was frightened. Surely Aragorn couldn't be sick? "See if this helps," he urged, tilting his own water bottle to his friend's lips.
Aragorn took some of the water in his mouth and rinsed it out, his eyes tightly closed. He had never been this dizzy in all his life.
"Aragorn," Frodo said urgently, "You need to see a healer; that is, if there are any healers in camp besides yourself; I've hardly had time yet to find out."
"There are," Aragorn said. He felt as if Frodo's voice was coming to him over a great distance. His limbs felt like water, and his head pounded. He lowered himself fully onto the grass. "Frodo, I don't know what's wrong, but I can't ride. Not... not just yet..."
Frodo looked in all directions, but saw no one. If only he had Uncle Saradoc's horn to summon aid! He had to get back to camp and bring help, and there was only one way to do it quickly.
"Will Roheryn bear me without you?"
"He will leave me, if he senses the need to do so." Aragorn whispered a few words of Elvish that sounded vaguely familiar to Frodo. "Say… say that. But you shouldn't--"
"I'll be back as soon as I can," Frodo said firmly, trying to calm his frantically-pounding heart. Unfastening his Elvish cloak, he shivered in the suddenly cooling air. He draped it over Aragorn's chest. "Pull this over your head if the rains start."
Frodo leaped to his feet, thinking hard. He ran to the pack and pulled it close to Aragorn, then put his water bottle within easy reach. To his relief, he saw that Roheryn was standing right next to one of the large boulders. He ran over to it and climbed up. Very carefully, and somewhat fearfully, he slid onto the horse's back.
"Noro lim!" Frodo cried out the words Aragorn had told him. Roheryn's head came up, and Frodo felt muscles tense beneath him, but the horse didn't move. The loyal animal looked over at Aragorn, obviously torn between staying, or obeying a command he knew well.
"Noro lim, Roheryn!" his master's voice suddenly rang out.
Frodo grabbed handfuls of mane just in time as Roheryn took off, galloping quickly south along the stream towards the encampment of Men. Frodo struggled with all his strength to stay on the horse's back, only three thoughts in his head – the hope that Roheryn would somehow know to stop running when they reached camp; berating himself for dawdling along the trail that day, keeping them from returning more quickly; and fear for Aragorn, alone and ill, somewhere behind him.