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The Time of Probing
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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4
IV

IV


Strider quietly opened the door and peered in, then came in once he realized who it was that watched over Frodo. He gave the lady a courtly bow, murmuring, “My Lady Arwen.”

“My Lord Aragorn,” she returned, her head cocked slightly to one side. “And why are you not resting as you were ordered?”

He shrugged. “I find I cannot sleep. Too long recently have I gone without proper rest, and I find that my mind and body are too sensitive. Every least sound and I startle to full wakefulness again. I finally decided that it would be best to come here to take my turn at watching over him, perhaps merely to assure myself that the breath of life still is within him.”

“I assure you that all is as well with him as it can be.”

Strider was eyeing Sam. “And I see that I am not the only one who remains wakeful who perhaps should not,” he commented. “Can you not rest either, Sam?”

“It’s been rather hard,” Sam admitted. “Although I’m findin’ myself yawnin’ perhaps more’n is strictly needful.”

“Then lie down upon the pallet, and if there is any change I swear I shall call you awake immediately. But I do not believe there will be anything of note this night.”

The lady arose, gathering her sewing into the cloth bag she carried. “I will leave you to your watch,” she said, “although I shall advise Ada that you are here rather than in your own bed.”

“I would expect nothing less from you,” he responded as he gave another bow. “May you sleep well, and may your dreams be pleasant ones, my lady.”

He had settled in the chair in which Bilbo had been sitting before she had the door closed behind her. For a moment he leaned over Frodo, searching his face, his hand to the Hobbit’s brow. At last he sat back and relaxed slightly. “Go, lie down and rest, Sam. You know that I will not allow anything else to harm him.”

As he pulled the blankets back so he could lie down, Sam commented, “You called Lord Elrond ‘Ada.’ And him called you his son as I understand it.”

Aragorn gave a twisted smile. “He has been as my father for most of my life, as my own died when I was little better than a babe in arms. I was only two years of age when my father was slain by orcs, and my mother agreed to bring me here to keep me safe from our enemies. The Dark Lord’s creatures have wished to slay all in my line for more years than you can imagine.”

“And the one as just left, she’s Lord Elrond’s daughter?”

“Yes. He has three children, twin sons who are now scouring the lands round about to make certain that the Black Riders are indeed swept away, and the Lady Arwen.”

“So you’ve known all along as how to come here.”

“You didn’t believe that I did?”

Sam sat up upon the mattress, his hands clasped about his upraised knees. “I wasn’t certain as what to think,” he admitted. “But if’n you grew up here I suppose as there’s no way as you’re an enemy. The Elves wouldn’t raise no one as would grow up t’be an enemy, I suppose.”

“Not even amongst the Elves have all be strictly honorable, Sam.”

Sam shrugged. “Perhaps not. I suppose as you’d know that better than me. But just who are you, really? And why didn’t you tell us as you’re Lord Elrond’s foster son?”

“You didn’t fully believe that I was Gandalf’s friend, did you? Would you have believed I was a son of this house any better? I rather doubt it.”

Sam grinned. “Yes, you’re right about that. I’d of sooner believed as you was the heir to Arvedui Last-king!”

“Which is what I am!”

Sam’s eyes widened with surprise, and he stared at the Man for a moment before he lay back, staring at the ceiling without truly seeing it. “If that don’t beat all!” he whispered. He suddenly laughed. “And t’think as I’d had you down as the worst villain ever!”

“To which impression I am certain Barliman Butterbur added,” Strider responded dryly. “How long has it been since Frodo was given anything to drink?”

“Perhaps twenty minutes.”

The Man rose and settled his hip upon the bed, carefully raised Frodo’s torso and coaxed him into taking a few swallows from the invalid’s cup. He was in the process of settling Frodo down on one side with pillows and cushions to support him when Gandalf entered, a tankard in one hand and his staff and unlit pipe in the other.

“A fine one you are, caring for him when you barely manage to care for yourself, Aragorn!” he grumbled.

“And you look well yourself, thank you for asking,” Strider replied, carefully pulling the blankets over Frodo’s form.

The stricken Hobbit muttered a few words, something about Tom Bombadil from what Sam could make out.

Gandalf glanced Sam’s way. “Then you did come through the Old Forest?”

“Yes, for what good it did us,” Sam sighed. “Old Tom’s a caution, and that’s a fact, but the rest of it—well, I’m glad as that’s behind us! Between trees as resent those as can walk free and them wights, we didn’t have the most pleasant of visits.”

Gandalf again went still. “Wights?”

“Mr. Frodo will have to tell you about it, as him was the only one truly awake for most of it. We got lost in the fog and ended up in the barrow-downs, and next thing as we knew, we was wakin’ up on the ruins of a fallen mound with Mr. Frodo and Tom Bombadil lookin’ down on Mr. Merry, Pippin, and me. And if’n that wight hadn’t of stole our clothes!”

“Good heavens!”

As Aragorn straightened the Man added, “Tom was just saying good-bye to the four of them when I first spied them, not far from the clearing where most people will stop to eat and stretch their legs. I admit that I’ve not come to know him anywhere as well as you, Gandalf, but I’d say that he was relieved to see the four of them safe on the road and to note that I would be following them the rest of the way to Bree.”

“The Old Forest isn’t the most hospitable of places, I admit. Well, man, what are you going to do? Go back to your own quarters and get the rest you so desperately need, or perhaps sit over there and at least put your feet up for a few hours?”

“I can’t sleep! I’ve had to be alert and aware for too long, and my body and mind just won’t let go of it, as I’m certain Arwen advised you.”

“Then sit down over there, and if there’s anything else that needs doing, I’ll call upon you.”

Once the Man was settled in the chair where the lady had sat and Gandalf had seen the padded settle placed to allow Strider to put his feet up, all went quiet for a time. Sam was almost asleep himself when he heard the soft snore indicating that, in spite of himself, the Man had indeed managed to doze off. He heard a soft chuckle from the Wizard, who stood, retrieved a light blanket that lay folded over the foot of the bed, and carefully laid it across the Ranger’s body before returning to the chair the other side of the bed.

“You should sleep also, Samwise Gamgee,” Gandalf said quietly.

“He says as Lord Elrond cared for him the same as his dad when him was growin’ up,” Sam murmured.

“Yes, he did.”

“So, he thinks of the Lady Arwen as his sister?”

Gandalf’s voice was carefully measured as he answered. “There is no question that he thinks of Elladan and Elrohir, the Lady Arwen’s older brothers, as his own brothers. But he did not know Arwen when he was a child, for she dwelt with her mother’s people for many years. Elrond’s wife left Middle Earth, sailing for the Undying Lands, many lifetimes ago as measured by mortals. The Enemy’s creatures captured her and treated her abominably, giving her a poisoned wound from which she could not properly recover here in the Mortal Lands. Her sons found and rescued her, and her husband did all that he could to help restore her. But sometimes wounds go too deep to heal properly, and the marring left by Morgoth is so close to the surface here in Ennor that she simply could not find any easing from her continuing pain, terror, and grief as long as she remained.

“Her children have always spent time with their mother’s parents when they could, sometimes a few years at a time, sometimes nearly a century. Arwen, since her mother left, has spent more time in her grandparents’ home than have her brothers. Part of it is intended to help keep her love for her mother alive in her, and part of it is to help her heal from her mother’s departure. Elladan and Elrohir have spent much of their time out of this valley upon errantry, and very much of that time seeking out the orcs of the Misty Mountains and wreaking vengeance upon them for the horrors their mother suffered under the hands of such creatures.

“So it was that Aragorn here never met Arwen until he was judged a Man grown. Even since that day she has come and gone between here and her grandparents’ home several times. Few Mortals have seen her in the past five hundred years, and it was quite by accident that they met at all when and how they did, or so I understand it. They tend to behave particularly formally when they meet in company, or so I’ve found. It’s all rather amusing.”

Sam thought on this for a few moments while Gandalf again gave Frodo a few more sips from the invalid’s cup. Once Frodo was again settled and covered up, he asked, “What they’re plannin’ for the mornin’, it’s dangerous, isn’t it?”

“Yes. And there is a fair chance that Elrond won’t be able to find the shard right away, and that it may need to be done again.”

“Has anyone ever lived who’s been stabbed like this?”

“Yes, one has. He carried the shard in him for perhaps ten days. But he was stabbed on the right arm, so the shard had a good deal further to travel than the one Frodo bears. Elrond removed it. But I warn you that he knew pain from the wound for the remainder of his life.”

“My Master—he could be in pain from this for as long as he lives?”

“It is possible, Sam. I will not lie to you. But all will be done to ward against that chance. And Elrond has learned much since that time.”

“Strider says as him’s the heir to the Last-king.”

“Yes.”

“Always wondered if’n there was an heir hidin’ out somewhere. Glad to know as there has been.” Sam yawned. “So,” he managed through the yawn, “There is a chance as the King just might return after all.”

He was drifting off as Gandalf, smiling fondly down on him, murmured, “Yes, my good Sam, there is a very good chance that the King just might return indeed. And you may well have a hand in seeing it come to pass. Would that please you?”

But Sam was asleep, and after he awoke he had only the vaguest memories of that last exchange with the Wizard.



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