Author's Notes: Before doing anything else, I must express enormous thanks to Docmon, my patient, insightful, and amazing beta, who is a fountain of inspiration for both writing and life. Thank you, Docmon!
The Dooming of Small Hands
Morning dawned crisp and fresh over Rivendell. Working its way through the clefts and passes of the Misty Mountains, sunlight streamed down to touch upon golden leaves that still clung to their branches in protest of the coming frost. Elven voices rose in cheerful song to greet the new day, and the mists of the rivers rose with them, clouding the valley in a cleansing veil. The very air whispered of comfort and calm, evoking a sense of security that was as deep as the elven arts that protected the valley. Here those who suffered found healing, and here those who grieved found peace.
At least, that was the accustomed way of things. But leaning wearily against his staff, Gandalf discovered that this morning brought him little in the way of comfort.
Not for want of trying. He watched the delicate play of light over the mists. He listened to the harmony of falling water and elven song. He tasted the heady swell of power and memory that safeguarded the Last Homely House. But despite his efforts, these things seemed hollow to the wizard, and his heart found no rest. Dark thoughts burdened his mind, and even fair Imladris could not ease their weight.
His mouth set in a firm line, Gandalf turned away from the dawn and retreated back into the house, easily navigating his way through a myriad of twisting corridors. He had never been one to sit and ponder when doom knocked upon the door, and if he could not find peace, he would instead attempt to confront his doubts and fears. So resolved, his steps brought him unerringly to the entrance of Frodo's room.
A gentle push caused the door to swing silently open, and as Gandalf entered, he found his lips twitching at the sight that greeted him. Frodo slept peacefully in a bed that was far too big for him, his face clear and his brow unfurrowed. Hunched beside the bed was Samwise, his head lolling against the side of the mattress and his mouth wide open in sleep. One arm was stretched out above him so that his hand lay partially curled upon the coverlet not far from Frodo. So innocent did the two appear that even the shadows in his heart could not deny Gandalf a surge of warmth at the scene.
"He will wake soon."
Gandalf's gaze snapped to the side as Elrond rose from where he had been keeping watch. The Half-Elf's eyes were tired and careworn as might be expected from one who had toiled hard for three days and four nights on Frodo's behalf. Ever since the hobbit had been carried in from the Ford of Bruinen, Elrond had labored to heal Frodo's Morgul wound, though there came a time when Gandalf had wondered if he labored in vain. Frodo had continued to sicken with no sign of healing until the previous night when a shard of the Morgul blade was discovered and removed from deep within Frodo's shoulder. That had proven to be the turning point, and it was a stroke of fortune that Gandalf would not take for granted.
"His color returns and his sleep becomes light," Elrond continued quietly, his gaze upon his patient. "I expect that he will open his eyes in an hour or two."
"Good," Gandalf murmured. "That is good to hear."
Something in Gandalf's tone drew Elrond's attention, and the wizard suddenly found himself the subject of intense study. "Then why do you not rejoice to hear it?"
A protest formed on Gandalf's lips. He did rejoice! He was delighted that Frodo would soon find himself hale once again. But his protest died ere it could be voiced, for even as Gandalf's concerns for the hobbit's health faded, other concerns rose to take their place. "I fear that Frodo's recovery will only serve to bring him additional pain," he confessed.
Something flashed in Elrond's eyes, but his face was otherwise unreadable. "Then let us speak of this pain," he said, moving toward the door, "for I perceive that it pains you as well." And when Gandalf hesitated, he added, "Come. I will not have you disturbing Frodo, and Master Samwise is also in great need of rest."
"As are you," Gandalf retorted, but he followed Elrond into the hallway and closed the door behind him.
"If you truly believe that I am in need of rest, then you can best aid me by coming straight to the point and speaking of what troubles you," Elrond said. "I am too weary to play at word games."
"I doubt that," Gandalf huffed, but he said nothing more, his eyes straying toward the closed door as his thoughts drifted to the one who lay behind it.
"We must destroy the Ring," Gandalf sighed. "We cannot hope to conceal It here. Already Its taint poisons all around It." He turned his sharp gaze toward Elrond. "You feel it."
The weariness in Elrond's face increased, and he nodded slowly. "I will not deny it. Vilya is…cautious in the presence of the One. I have had to draw upon Vilya's power greatly of late in order to thwart our Enemy's spies, and given your tidings of Saruman, I suspect that I shall soon have even more need of its craft. But so long as the One is in this valley…" He trailed off and shook his head. "I wondered that I did not note Its presence when Bilbo stayed here after the death of Smaug. But the world was not so dark then, and Imladris did not depend upon Vilya as it does now."
"And the darkening of the world makes the Ring's destruction all the more imperative," Gandalf said, running his fingers over Narya as he spoke. "Sauron has grown too powerful, and we have delayed too long. If we had acted against him before he fled Mirkwood, perhaps there would have been hope. But now that Sauron is secure within Mordor, we cannot triumph. Not with the armies of Middle-earth."
"And already Sauron scatters our allies with his own," Elrond agreed darkly, moving down the hallway away from Frodo's door. He turned outward toward a balcony, and walking to the balustrade, he leaned against it and looked out over Rivendell. "Isengard draws Rohan," he continued, his voice low. "Lórien and Greenwood strive with Dol Guldur. Esgaroth contends with Rhûn. All of Eriador darkens. And if my sources serve me well, Gondor is faltering. Truly, we cannot overcome Sauron's power. Rather, we must undo it. But the decision to destroy the Ring is not a decision for us alone," Elrond warned, turning his gaze back toward Gandalf. "Such an act will imperil all, for we will place within Sauron's reach the one weapon he needs to make certain his victory. This decision must be made with the consent of all affected. They must choose this path together."
"Then we must ensure that those who do the choosing have a full understanding of the peril," Gandalf said, joining Elrond upon the balcony. "For that will make clear the necessity of the choice as well as the necessity of the one who will bear the Ring."
Elrond frowned at that. "You have someone already in mind?"
Gandalf frowned in return. Given all that had happened and all that he had shared with Elrond, he had felt the choice to be obvious. "You do not?"
"There are several I had considered, but—"
"Blessed Valar, there are none to consider save one! The bearer must be Frodo."
The darkness in Gandalf's heart grew even greater at this declaration. He had known for a long time that it would come to this, but saying it somehow made the betrayal worse.
His companion's incredulous look did not help. "A hobbit?" Elrond exclaimed. "My dear Mithrandir, surely you cannot expect—"
"Do you doubt his courage? His strength? His determination? Or if you remain unconvinced of these things, consider this: his uncle brought down a dragon, liberated the Lonely Mountain, and helped forge peace between Dale, Erebor, the Long Lake, and Greenwood."
"As I recall it, Bilbo was assisted by yourself, thirteen dwarves, Thranduil, Dáin, Brand, Beorn, the eagles, and five armies," Elrond observed coolly. "Moreover, Frodo is not Bilbo. And while he may have courage, strength, and determination, he lacks skill and experience. The only battle he has ever seen nearly made him a wraith."
Gandalf sighed. "Very few escape from their first battle unscathed."
"As he has only experienced one battle, it is all I have with which to judge," Elrond said sharply. "Moreover, he has never been east of the Misty Mountains. He knows nothing of the lands between here and Mordor. He is a hobbit, for Elbereth's sake! I agree that he has done well in carrying the Ring this far, but the remainder of the journey should be undertaken by—"
"By whom?" Gandalf challenged. "By one of greater experience? Greater knowledge? Greater power? Think of how the Ring would test that experience. That knowledge. That power. You fear to keep the Ring in Imladris, and well you should. But why? Why do you fear It so?"
Elrond's stern expression softened, though it was clear he still disagreed with the wizard. "Because of that which you name. There is too much knowledge and power here." He shook his head. "I understand your argument, Mithrandir. Indeed, what is the difference between keeping the One here and sending the One away if we but enable It to gain Its desire through Its bearer? But a hobbit…"
"It seems to be the way of things," Gandalf mused, his eyes staring at an unseen point far into the west. "Consider the great deeds of the Ages. The Valar crafted the Two Trees, but they had not the power to restore them. That power lay with the Elves. With Fëanor, though he chose not to act upon it. Likewise, the Noldor created the Rings, but they had not the power to undo what they had wrought. That power lay with Men. With Isildur, though his victory was incomplete. Now it comes to a last great effort, and as Men and Elves have fallen short of the mark, where should we turn?"
Gandalf flashed a grim smile. "You may be surprised to learn that I considered them. And in truth, there is much to recommend them for such a task. Even when Sauron wielded the One, the dwarves were able to make use of the Seven without falling to Sauron's corruption. The same cannot be said of any other race that possessed Rings of Power. But the dwarves have become a fading people these days, much like the elves. Yet unlike the elves, they are fighting it, and therein lies the key to their undoing. The yearning to restore their strongholds is great, and in the One, they would find the power to fulfill their desires. Such would be the temptation, and as such, this task cannot belong to them. It must go to one whose race is yet unsullied by the Rings. One who will be able to draw from a strength that is truly his own. And there is great strength in hobbits, Lord Elrond. Do not dismiss them so quickly"
"I do not," Elrond said slowly, "for I was witness to that strength. Frodo survived longer than I would have ever expected for one bearing the mark of a Morgul blade. But as for bearing the Ring to Mordor…" He trailed off and his jaw clenched. "Frodo is not ready for such a journey."
"None are ready for such a journey," Gandalf countered. "The guile of the Ring is such that no preparation would ever be adequate. And that is yet another reason I think it best for a hobbit to bear our doom. The fact that Frodo will not consider himself ready makes him ready, for he will be doubly on guard for the Ring's deceits."
"A simple plan, Mithrandir. Some would say too simple."
"And what have the subtleties of the Wise gained us save for the very delay that now forces this decision?"
"You prove yourself well, as is your wont," Elrond said softly, "and thus I have but one more warning to give: Frodo will not survive. If you send him forth with the Ring, either he will return forever marred or he will not return at all."
And now they came to it. It was not the decision itself that wracked Gandalf's heart, but rather the consequences to Frodo. For Elrond spoke truly: Frodo would find either death or ruin at the end of the quest. "No Ring-bearer can live in these times and remain unchanged. Frodo's journey has already begun," Gandalf said quietly, unable to meet Elrond's gaze as he spoke.
"But Frodo's journey can conclude here," Elrond pointed out. "A new bearer could be found."
"There is no other," Gandalf sighed. "I would not trust this Ring to the hands of Men, Elves, or Dwarves. No, it must be a hobbit, and it must be Frodo. The Ring has come to him; I will not thwart fate in this."
"And what if Frodo does not agree?"
"He will," Gandalf said heavily. "He will for the same reason that others will agree to destroy the Ring. There will be no other choice."
"And how much of the perils and costs will you share with him?"
"As much as he can bear." Gandalf's hands fisted about his staff. "But as you have already observed, he is not prepared for such a journey. And I fear I will be able to tell him little, else he shall be broken ere he begins."
Elrond did not respond to this for a moment, but when he did, his words were low and somber. "Fragments of knowledge. Hints and promises of that which is to come. My friend, you entice and betray Frodo as surely as the Ring will."
Gandalf closed his eyes, his voice no more than a whisper. "Yes."
The admission seemed to still the music of song and water, and Gandalf found himself leaning hard against his staff. At his side, he felt Elrond shift uneasily. "Little wonder, then, that you are burdened."
"I act on behalf of all Free Peoples," Gandalf murmured. "But to sacrifice one so unknowing… I fear it is the doom of small hands to bear the weight of the world. But they cannot know how much they bear lest they falter with the knowledge."
"You are resolute in this?" Elrond asked. "For in bearing the weight of the world, these small hands will be crushed by it. When all is decided, can you send Frodo forth knowing that? And can you send him forth while withholding that knowledge?"
"I must," Gandalf said, his words bitter in his mouth. "I must, for there is no other choice. None that I can discern, at least, and all the more do I curse Saruman for his part in this. Had we not heeded his counsel when Sauron was yet in Mirkwood—" Gandalf stopped himself and shook his head. "That opportunity is past. We must not dwell on it. Rather, we must move forward and seize the opportunity now before us. We must destroy the Ring. And Frodo must be the one to do it."
Elrond's expression was grim as he raised his face toward the sun. "We shall see," he said. "For my part, I am yet undecided. But I am Frodo's healer and his welfare is foremost on my mind. I must remove myself from that role if I am to judge your words fairly, and if I am to join you in this betrayal." The Half-Elf glanced back into the shadowed halls of his home. "We shall take counsel tomorrow morning," he said at length. "There are many here who have come bearing tidings that all should hear, and they will be tasked to speak on behalf of their peoples in the matter of the Ring. Mayhap through discussion, we will find our course. But until then, let not these unhappy thoughts darken Imladris. Frodo's healing must come first if we wish for his participation tomorrow, and to ensure that healing, he must be given full access to all that my home can offer him."
"That much I can do for Frodo," Gandalf promised. "And to that end, I will go now to sit with him until he wakes. You should seek rest yourself, for we will have need of your wits if you intend to conduct a council tomorrow." And when Elrond made as though to object, Gandalf held up his hand and adopted his most imposing expression. "You look as though you have just endured a lengthy debate against both Celeborn and Thranduil. Rest! I will see to Frodo. No ill thoughts will trouble his mind, and I will send word should he have need of you."
Elrond's tight jaw still indicated reluctance, but within his eyes, Gandalf saw acceptance. "Frodo is not to speak of or consider aught that might endanger his healing," Elrond warned sternly.
"He will not."
There was a slow nod. "Then I will rest, for I am indeed weary." He began to turn away, but then he stopped and looked back. "While you are there, see if you can convince Master Samwise to take his rest elsewhere. I fear for the wellbeing of his neck should he remain in his current position."
Thinking back on his last sight of Sam, Gandalf felt a sympathetic crick in his own neck. "I will do my best," he said, "but I can offer you no promises."
A smile tugged at Elrond's mouth. "Well do I know it. Perhaps you are right after all, Mithrandir. If one small gardener can defy me so readily in the halls of my own home, what might Frodo be able to do in the lands of Mordor?"
"Valar willing, we will be given the opportunity to learn."
The smile vanished. "As I said before, we shall see." And with that, Elrond walked away, his shoulders stooped and his steps slow. Feeling the weight of his own cares, Gandalf stood in the sunlight a moment more before also leaving the balcony, his feet retracing the path to Frodo's room.
As before, the door opened silently, and Gandalf once again found himself smiling at the scene that awaited him. Both hobbits were snoring gently, blissfully unaware of their observer. Looking at the angle of Sam's head, Gandalf grimaced and moved to wake him, but then he stopped and pulled back. Frodo had freed one of his hands from the coverlet, and it now rested near Sam's. Small and sure were these hobbit hands. Small and sure and already strained from the perils they had faced. Doubt bloomed in Gandalf's heart. Was this to be the way of things? Could he truly betray Frodo for the sake of Middle-earth and send him forth with only a partial warning of what such a quest would cost him?
Yet even as he doubted, he knew the answer. And Frodo also knew the answer, though he might not understand the whole of it yet. But he knew enough to understand some of the task that would be asked of him. And still he would say yes. He would be their Ring-bearer.
So laden with both admiration and sorrow, Gandalf withdrew from the bedside and decided to let Sam sleep a little longer. For now, the two hobbits dreamed together of happier times, and at the expense of Sam's neck, Gandalf would let them hold onto this fleeting moment of peace. For in dreams lay hope, and it was in hope that these hobbits would find their strength.
Thus the morning drew on as a weary wizard waited and two small hobbits slept.