There was no reason he could think of to go further than the doors to meet those approaching the Last Homely House, not with Bilbo so upset at the news that his former ward was seriously wounded and in grave danger. In light of these facts, Gandalf had chosen to stay within Elrond’s halls by the old Hobbit’s side. Aragorn was a more than competent healer, after all, taught by Elrond himself, and Glorfindel a powerful Elf lord in command of a good deal of magic. The twins were abroad at the moment, and Elrond was efficiently marshalling the place to have all in readiness once the Dúnadan and his charges arrived. So it was that Arwen had gone forth instead with the party sent to carry Frodo from the Ford to the house, intending that her presence should assist Aragorn to shore up his own flagging energies. Certainly between them she and her beloved should be able to help the dear Hobbit fight the influence of the Morgul shard until he could be brought under Elrond’s personal care!
He wished he had dared to haunt the region of Amon Sûl until the others came there—he would have given the Nazgûl a second show of lightning and thunder to singe their black garb! But it was good, he knew, that he’d led the four on his tail away, so that the whole of the Nine weren’t there when Aragorn’s party was attacked.
So, Frodo and Sam hadn’t been able to get away from the Shire undetected, eh? He wasn’t surprised that one of their two reported companions was Meriadoc Brandybuck, as young Merry had been Frodo’s shadow most of his life. The younger Hobbit had allowed Frodo to go as far as Hobbiton without him, but would refuse to allow his beloved older cousin to go any further without his protection.
No, Gandalf wasn’t surprised that Merry had come, too. He’d expected the perceptive young Brandybuck to ferret out Frodo’s secret, in fact. And he’d expected that at least one other would come as well, perhaps either Fredegar Bolger or that Folco Boffin. He’d perceived years ago that young Fredegar had to him a core of fine steel that would serve him well at need. Unfortunately, the lad’s mother Rosamunda had suspected the same core, and fearing where it might lead her chick, she’d sought to bury it under a heavy shroud of adipose tissue. She’d taught her son to eat in response to almost any disturbing issue, with the result that even plump Hobbits happily called him Fatty.
But in the end it wasn’t Fatty Bolger who’d made the fourth in the party. No, it had been—Pippin!
Gandalf shook his head at that idea. Peregrin Took, wandering the wilds of Middle Earth? He shuddered at the mere thought of it! So deeply did Pippin resemble the Wizard’s deeply missed friend Gerontius, but without the Old Took’s steadiness of character and ready discernment. Not, of course, that Gandalf had known Pippin’s great, great grandfather when he was a child—he’d not met Gerontius Took until he was a Hobbit grown and already assuming many of the duties of the Thain of the Shire. But Pippin was still only a tween, and far from the most responsible tween the Wizard had ever met. Somehow the lad had become precious to him, however, perhaps due to that resemblance to his progenitor. Or perhaps just because he was—Pippin, often foolish but loving Pippin.
There was a whistle from the stand of beeches on the far side of the bridge. The bearers were approaching! Bilbo, who’d been sitting, warmly wrapped, on the bench beside which Gandalf stood, raised his head, his face pale with concern. When at last the forerunners could be seen, the Hobbit rose to his feet, his body tense under Gandalf’s hand, which was now resting on Bilbo’s shoulder. Together they watched as the four Elves carrying the litter hurried toward them, Aragorn and Arwen on either side of the still form lying on it tightly wrapped with blankets, each with a hand resting on Frodo’s breast.
Bilbo started to step forward, but then thought the better of it. The bearers came abreast of them, and paused very briefly so that the old Hobbit could look on his beloved fosterling’s face. Gandalf could hear the sharp intake of breath as Bilbo took in the greyness of Frodo’s skin, the blue lips, the sunken, shadowed eyes, the hollows of the once rounded cheeks. Then they were hurrying inside, granting Hobbit and Wizard but a swift glimpse of Aragorn’s gaunt features before they were past. Bilbo shook off Gandalf’s hand and hurried after them, intent on being at Frodo’s side from the beginning.
But Gandalf lingered, watching for the others to arrive.
At last he heard another whistle indicating the approach of the rest. It took another twenty minutes counted by a Dwarf-made clock before he could hear the strike of horse’s hooves on the track into the valley. Soon he could see Asfaloth, and on his back two small figures, childlike in the growing gloom of the day. Behind him were armed warriors, two consulting with Glorfindel. Glorfindel was giving them only partial attention, however, as he kept glancing behind him, where a small but sturdy figure was leading a skewbald pony laden with packs and what scant supplies remained to the new arrivals. Now at last Gandalf was moved to step forward to assist as he could. Once Asfaloth arrived before the doors he stopped and cast a look over his shoulder at his riders as if concerned for their welfare. Glorfindel shrugged off his companions and reached up to aid Merry Brandybuck to alight from the stallion’s back, and Gandalf reached for the other Hobbit who’d been seated with him.
Pippin’s eyes were wide with anxiety, and as Gandalf lifted him down he cried, “Oh, Gandalf, here you are at last! We’ll be safe now, I know it! Frodo! Is he here already? Can they help him, do you think? He’s held on so far, but when I saw him fall from Asfaloth’s back I was afraid that the river would sweep him away! Did you make the water rise up like that when the Black Riders rode into the river? You must have made it look like there were white riders in it—that had to be you! Merry’s been a brick, and he won’t admit his feet hurt him. But we were all frightened, even when we chased the Riders back in when the river started to rise. Oh, Gandalf!”
The Wizard found himself falling to his knees and holding the dear young fool close to his chest, feeling him tremble with mixed worry and relief, not surprised at all when Pippin burst into unexpected tears. “They stabbed Frodo, and it was terrible, Gandalf,” the young Hobbit whispered. “Strider says they were trying to turn him into one of them with that awful knife of theirs. They can’t really do it, can they? The Elves can help him, can’t they?”
Oh, the dear, worried child! But even as he held Pippin close and murmured soothing words into his ear, the Wizard became aware that Pippin held that same core of fine steel within him he’d always sensed in Fredegar Bolger, and was both glad and at the same time further alarmed, knowing how likely it was that that core would be tempered by a fire that Peregrin Took could not yet comprehend.