Beta appreciation notes for original: Kat and Shot. Beta appreciation notes for rewrite: Kat and Derby – thanks my precious, ever patient team.
NOTES: This series re-enters the Ranger-child timeline, picking up the story right after Problems With Pipeweed.
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement is intended. I don't own these characters. This story is not meant to violate the rights held by New Line, Tolkien Enterprises, nor any other licensee, nor is any disrespect intended.
Boundaries Redefined - Chapter I
“Has the bad taste gone away?” I asked, sitting down next to Merry. He was munching on an apple.
He sniffed and grinned good-naturedly. “Breakfast this morning took care of it well enough.”
“First breakfast?” I grinned back.
Merry chuckled. “Did Aragorn tell you about that?” I gave him a nod. “Well, I suppose the people of Gondor have just one breakfast, but hobbits generally require two.”
“At least. Pippin will sometimes try to sneak a third.” We paused to chuckle, then he said, “When we joined up with Aragorn, or rather, when Strider took us under his wing in Bree, he changed our breakfast routine, much to Pip’s dismay.”
I nodded again. “I dare say.” I heard giggling from somewhere, wild boyish giggling. Glancing around, asking Merry, “Where is your cousin?”
He turned a studious frown upon his apple, cleared his throat and said, “Both of my cousins are behaving in the most infantile and deplorable manner at the moment, sir, that I am disinclined to tell you where they are and what they are doing.”
He grinned, all too eager to tell, in fact. “You know that hillside to the east, the one that was covered with thick green grass? We saw it when we started up the incline to camp atop this hill.”
“Aye, it’s connected to this hilltop.”
“Well, Pippin and Frodo . . . well, they’re over there rolling down the hillside.”
“What?” I burst out laughing, as did Merry.
“They are! I swear to you, they’re both acting like hobbit-tots! I was so humiliated I had to come back up here and find something to eat.” Again we paused to laugh. “You can witness their antics from over there, by that stand of firs.” He pointed off towards some trees.
“Oh, I must see this!”
I strolled to the vantagepoint and looked out, and there they were, two hobbits, adult hobbits, rolling down the hill, laughing wildly. Sam was holding their coats, standing at the bottom, I guess to supervise their play and to stand ever-vigilant guard over his Mister Frodo. His shoulders were shaking with laughter, though.
Thoroughly entertained, I watched Pippin and Frodo roll down, jump to their feet, trudge back up the short hill and then do it again, and again. This after a full day’s march. They looked a bit weary, but nowhere near ready to quit as they kept gasping their way back up the steep little incline. It was pure, absurd fun, and it was so like a hobbit.
“Pip’s idea, of course,” Merry said, coming up beside me to watch. “Frodo had a small hand in it, daring him to do it.”
“Aye, he said Pippin wouldn’t dare do anything so foolishly juvenile in front of the big folk --”
“Which would surely warrant that Pippin would do it.”
“Exactly, just as Frodo intended, and then Pip could call him too upper crust to have any fun --”
“Which would insure that Frodo would join him.”
“Exactly again. And now look at them.”
“Hobbit-tots,” I said with a grin, and we stood watching them for a few more minutes. I noticed a small movement and a flash of bright elvish hair from high up amongst the foliage of a tree close to where the hobbits were playing, and although I didn’t see him, I imagine Aragorn was also somewhere nearby, watching. Gimli and Gandalf were here on the hilltop with Merry and me, over in the open area with the fire, putting together some sort of dinner, although Merry clearly hadn’t felt like waiting. He tossed his apple core down over the embankment and sat, cross-legged, apparently happy to be entertained for a while. I joined him.
“Pip can bring Frodo right down to that hobbit-tot age,” Merry said in a soft voice. “Frodo needs that. He’s too serious these days.”
I had supposed Frodo to always be rather dreamily contemplative. I remembered when I’d first seen him, sitting at the Council of Elrond, in that chair that was way too big for him. I’d not seen a halfling until that day, and, at first glance, upon entering the circle, I thought Frodo to be an elfling with those pointed ears and that exquisite, delicate beauty. I wondered what he was doing there, thinking that he might be royalty, though he was not dressed regally, or that perhaps he was somehow related to Elrond. But just then Frodo slightly kicked his dangling feet, drawing my notice downward, and the mystery came to an end. A hobbit.
I thought, “What a solemn, pretty little people!” Frodo looked reflective and withdrawn as the nobles gathered, his huge eyes traveling around the circle, quietly taking in everything, and when his liquid gaze fastened upon me I felt my heart lurch. He studied me with the boldness of a child, and though mere seconds passed, I felt time slow in those moments his eyes held mine. Such an otherworldly gaze, mesmerizing, ageless, and painfully vulnerable.
Gandalf reached over at that moment and reassuringly patted Frodo’s arm, pulling the halfling’s attention away from me. He gave the wizard a pensive smile, then glanced shyly over at me once more, and a sudden, fierce urge to protect him rose up within me, a sensation so powerful that I felt a shudder course through me now, just remembering it.
“Frodo’s seriousness is to be expected, Merry,” I now said. “He is older than the rest of you.”
“Not that much older. Frodo is only fourteen years older than me, only twelve years older than Sam.”
I grinned at Merry’s use of the word ‘only.’ There was ‘only’ five years difference between Faramir and myself, yet I felt much, much older than my little brother. I always had.
“And Pippin?” I asked, nodding to the giggling pair still at their fun below.
“Frodo is twenty-two years older than Pippin.” Merry crossed his arms over his middle, his brow tensing in thought. “But I don’t think age has all that much to do with it, Boromir. Unless you knew better, Sam would seem like the oldest of us, just because he’s more, well, ‘even-like’ in how he takes things. Frodo keeps his disquiet too close, if you take my meaning. Not in a sulky way, but in a worrisome way. ‘Course, he deserves that worry, what with being the Ringbearer and all. It’s more a matter of . . . nature.”
“Frodo has not always been of a quiet, serious nature?” I now asked his cousin.
“Oh, no! Used to be, Frodo was jolly and as full of hobbit nonsense as Pip and me,” Merry said wistfully. “I mean, he was always more bookish than we were, like old Bilbo, with his talk of adventures and travel, and his interest in far-off places and maps and lore and legend and such. But those of us who knew him best knew that, deep down inside, Frodo was a Shireling through and through. He used to get into devilment with us when we were in our ‘tweens. He’d drink too much at The Green Dragon, and sing rowdy songs with the rest of us, and oh, he was as, as . . . .” Merry paused and cast me a sly grin. “What’s that word you like? Oh yes! He was as naughty as the best of us.”
I darted him a teasing scowl and Merry laughed. “Once, when Pip and Frodo and I were just a bit tipsy, he taught us some naughty elvish words!”
“What?” I exclaimed on a chuckle. “Frodo taught the two of you foul elvish? Well, well!” Most intriguing. I sidled him a glance. “Perhaps you could --”
“Oh, no! I’ll not teach those words to you and neither will Pip. I’m sorry, but the next day, when we were sober, Frodo made us swear to never say them around the Shire, or to ever teach those words to others. Sam doesn’t even know them. If the young folks started cursing in elvish, you see, well, the elders would be sure to know where they’d learned it.”
“I am hardly about to go spreading them around your Shire,” I protested.
“Nevertheless,” Merry said with a stubborn set to his jaw. “A promise is a promise. So you’ll not learn them from me. Besides, you start using them around here and who knows what could happen?” He learned over and murmured. “I don’t think Aragorn looks kindly on profanity.”
He had a fair point. Having no desire to ever again experience Aragorn’s mouth-soaping talents, I swallowed my disappointment and asked, “Where did Frodo learn foul elvish?”
Merry gazed off thoughtfully again, then he said, “Bilbo had many elvish friends, and sometimes he and Frodo would pack up their knapsacks and go off somewheres for a day or two. Frodo used to say that it was just Bilbo wanting to get out of the Shire for a bit on what he used to call his ‘wanderlings.’ I think they met with outsiders, like elvish folk who sent word when they would be passing near the Shire in their travels. Sometimes Gandalf would visit, and Bilbo and Frodo would go off with him for a few days, and they could have met with fair folk then . . . I don’t know for certain. Frodo didn’t talk much about it, and we didn’t press him. To be honest, Pip and I had our own interests to distract us, so Frodo’s comings and goings were his business, and that was alright. As for Sam, give him a garden to tend and that was all he needed. So I’m thinking that Frodo learned a lot of his elvish firsthand, as well as from Bilbo.”
“But the foul elvish came directly from these fair folk they would sometimes meet.”
He nodded. “Frodo said that they have impish natures, too, you know. And Frodo, well, he has such winning ways. You saw him at Rivendell. These elves tend to dote on him.”
Merry was right about that. Legolas clearly had a soft place in his heart for the Ringbearer.
“Anyway, to answer your question, no, I don’t think Frodo’s quiet side is due to age as much as it is nature. He always had a kind of quiet contentment. It’s just that now, well, this Ring business . . . .” Merry sighed. “Frodo carries a darker seriousness these days, so thank goodness for Pip and his eternal ‘tweenishness.”
I grinned softly to myself and thought over all Merry had said. Interesting, how much he saw and how much he understood about his kin. Merry’s waters ran deep in both awareness and in mischief making.
We fell silent and just watched the playfulness below, and for some reason, my thoughts drifted to Faramir and me. As the older brother I had duties and responsibilities Faramir had never known. I was my father’s golden son, and I had his grandiose expectations to live up to. I enjoyed parts of that, but I also hated it, not only because of the pressure he constantly put upon me to excel, but also for Faramir, because of the neglect and the hurt it brought him.
And yet, Faramir enjoyed a freedom I’d never known. He already felt judged as lacking by our father, so he took more liberties. He was the little brother I protected and cared for and indulged and disciplined. He did get into mischief, and although Denethor shunned him, either with indifference or with disdain, he was lovingly disciplined by me, or by Damrod. Faramir had the two of us, and within that safe place he could enjoy the freedom of a younger son unburdened by expectation.
I slipped Merry a sideways glance, wondering if he ever felt too responsible as well. His situation was different from mine in many ways, the most obvious being the intimate relationship he shared with Pippin. Also, Merry had a talent for mischief, as I’d recently learned.
But whereas Merry seemed quite able to occasionally dabble in the joys of silly behavior, I myself had somehow never really known what that was like. And I suddenly realized that a part of me resented the loss of that, and missed it.
I thought on Merry and Pippin’s most recent attempted prank and, to my surprise, I found myself saying what I was thinking: “That business with the pipe-weed . . . . ” I chuckled. “That was a fine plan you had.”
Merry turned a surprised, twinkly grin up at me. “It was, wasn’t it? We almost succeeded, you know. We nearly did it.”
I couldn’t hold back my chuckle. “You nearly did, you little imp. And it would’ve been grand.”
Merry hooted with laughter. “I know! Well, I mean, now that I know how it tasted, I’m sorry to have thought it up, and I’m glad Gimli didn’t actually smoke that stuff, but it did seem a great plan at the time.”
“Aye. And well executed.”
“Not well enough.” Merry sighed. “I still wonder how we were found out.”
I glanced at him, realizing that he must not know how well Legolas could hear when he chose to listen in.
Frodo and Pippin had apparently worn themselves out. They were collapsed on the grass at the foot of the hill, arms and legs spread out, and Sam had plunked down beside them, his legs stretched out in front of him.
“They’ll both be sluggish while training tonight,” Merry observed. Then he glanced up at me and said, “This must feel strange to you, Boromir. If all your life you’ve been the older brother, the responsible one, well, it must be strange to have Legolas calling you ‘little brother’ now.”
I looked down at him, astonished once again at his insight. “Aye. Aye, it is.”
Merry’s serious gaze reflected so much. He thought for a long moment, watching me, then he said, “Strange, but a nice strange.”
A blush crept up my cheeks. Merry noted it of course, but he had the tact to turn away and keep his little grin to himself.
“You should keep company with Pip more, Boromir. He’d soon have you rolling down hills, too.”
I laughed, clearly what he’d intended to ease the moment. The picture was too ridiculous not to laugh. “I keep company with him quite enough as is, I assure you.”
Merry raised his knees and braced his arms upon them. One hand came to his mouth and he rubbed his thumb over his bottom lip, Merry’s unique little thought-producing gesture. “Hmm, yes, I see, that’s right. You would be right back in the big brother role when keeping company with Pippin. You need to keep company more with me!” He grinned up at me.
I’m often too charmed by halfling mannerisms to fully note their inherent streak of wisdom, but I looked down at him now and felt a surge of excitement, a renegade wild streak waiting to be fully embraced.
“You can be both, you know. Really. I do it all the time. Aye, that’s the ticket! You and I should think up something grand and wicked to do together!” Before I could lodge a protest, Merry jumped up. “Come down with me and let’s see what they’re up to now. Look.” He nodded to the scene below. “I can tell from here that they’re planning something.”
I looked down. It seemed that Pippin and Frodo were just talking.
“Pip’s trying to get Frodo to do something Frodo doesn’t want to do,” Merry said, gazing down with a small grin.
I narrowed my eyes at the halflings and wondered what in Valar’s name Merry was seeing. Frodo and Pippin were sitting up with Sam beside Frodo, but it still looked to me like innocent conversation.
“My guess would be that it’s something to do with the lake over there and the muddy patch at its shore. Pip likes to play in mud.”
I laughed. “He what?”
“Oh he’s perfectly dotty for a nice messy mud patch to play in.”
“You mean he goes in the mud?”
“No, he plays with it, makes messy little sculptures or finds a stick and draws pictures in it, or writes foul words, that kind of thing.” He looked over at me and shook his head, fondly adding, “There’s no end to Pip’s silliness, you know. He’s the tweeniest tween ever known to hobbitdom. A word of advice, my friend, don’t ever try understanding what Pip does, and don’t ever try predicting it, either.”
“He’s positively maddening, but he does make life interesting. I’ve known and loved him forever, and even I’m amazed by what he might do at any moment.” He looked down again. “I’ll bet that mud is calling to him, and I’ll bet Frodo is telling him to behave himself, and to Pip, that’s an invitation to mayhem.” He turned to me, excited.
“Let’s see what’s going on. I guarantee some good times for the two of us if we join together, Boromir.”
He closed on me and held out a small arm as if to pull me up, and that was enough to make me chuckle again. I took his hand to preserve his pride, but rose up under my own power and found myself following Merry back through the pines and down the hill.
Pippin and a mud hole.
I groaned inside thinking that, well, this probably wasn’t the best idea. But I followed Frodo and his cousin down to the soggy looking wide expanse that lay on one end of the small lake.
“Would you just look at that?” Pip said with glee, his fists on his hips. “What lovely clean mud.”
“‘Clean’ mud?” I asked, eyeing the pool of brown mess.
“Aye. It’s not brackish or smelly or nasty-looking,” Pippin replied. “It’s just mud.”
I frowned at him, wondering if he was serious, and repeated, “‘Clean’ mud.”
Pippin raised his brows at me, all full of lofty wisdom. “Sam, I should think a gardener, of all people, should be able to distinguish clean mud from muddy mud.”
“And why would you think that?” I asked. “I can tell you what kind of dirt works best for what plants, and what kind of fertilizer to use and when. But this is mud, and we gardeners don’t tend to pay it much mind, leastways not so’s the Gaffer ever told me about.”
Pippin ‘tsked’ and shook his head and said, “There you go, shattering all my illusions about your wealth of gardening knowledge. Sam, I may have to go off and have me a good cry.”
Alright. Quite enough of this. Now I was just Pippin-bait. I cast Frodo a weary glance, sighed, and said, “Let’s go see if supper is ready.”
“That sounds like a fine plan,” came a call.
All three of us jumped and turned. Legolas and Strider were coming our way, both of them looking like they’d just been grinning at something. It was Legolas who’d called out, and they weren’t all that close, so it hit me that he must be able to hear pretty well. And then, here came Boromir and Merry, headed our way from the other direction, all of them nodding quick to each other as they all drew near to the three of us. Frodo and Pip and I just stood there watching them. I wondered what was suddenly so interesting about three hobbits standing at the edge of a mud hole.
“What are you three up to?” Strider asked as they drew to a halt.
We looked back and forth at each other, passing the same innocent gaze around.
“Up to?” Pippin smiled sweetly. “Why . . . nothing.”
Definitely the wrong hobbit to answer. The big folk exchanged some, ‘this smells fishy’ glances, then looked at us again, Legolas and Strider both raising a brow each. Boromir wasn’t much of a brow-raiser, but he had quite the stern frown, and that was enough. At the moment, though, Boromir didn’t look all that stern.
“Nothing, eh?” Merry grinned wickedly at Pip. “A lovely patch of mud, and it looks like clean mud at that --”
“Oh, it is, Merry! Lovely clean mud!”
“Uh huh. Lovely clean mud and you’ve got ‘nothing’ planned?”
“Frodo? Sam?” Strider looked at us closely.
Oh, now I was suspect, too? “Goodness!” I exclaimed before thinking much. “’Scuse me, but this seems like a lot of fuss to make over a simple patch of mud! Why do you imagine we have anything planned?”
“It is what we cannot imagine that concerns us, Sam,” Legolas answered, his eyes full of merriment.
“Aye,” Strider added, “the unimaginable.”
Pip looked puzzled. “Something unimaginable? About a mud hole?”
“Indeed,” the Ranger answered. “For example, I find it UNimaginable that such a thing would draw your attention at all, but the fact that it seems to have done so quickens my interest, gentlemen.”
“We had only just arrived, Aragorn,” Frodo said, and then he glanced at Legolas, and I vow a little ‘knowing’ glitter lit up Frodo’s eyes. I suppose only I noticed it, and it was gone in a flash, and Frodo was saying, “Truly, all we were doing at the moment was looking and discussing the cleanliness of the mud.”
There was a pause, then a few chuckles broke forth, everyone suddenly smiling at Frodo’s words.
“Very well then,” Strider said, all relaxed-like. “As long as there is no mischief being planned, you may return to your mud contemplating.” He and Legolas moved to turn, but Strider paused and said, “Let me leave you with this warning, however. No one is to come back to camp wearing mud, or bringing mud with them.”
We all just stared at him. Strider’s glance traveled over all of us four hobbits. Again, I couldn’t help wondering what he could be thinking. He answered my puzzlement without me asking.
“Should anyone end up covered with mud, time will be needed to wash and dry not only themselves, but their clothing. And while the lake provides a fine place to do so, I would be extremely displeased if such a waste of time and effort became necessary. Extremely. Displeased. Most likely the evening practice session would be lost for whoever’s clothes were busy drying. And the loss of a valuable practice opportunity would leave me feeling, what, Peregrin?”
Aragorn managed to somehow glare and grin at the same time. The rest of us shifted and fought off our laughter with both fists.
“Very good. Now, would anyone care to join us? We are going to see what Gandalf and Gimli have cooked up.”
“I’m staying a little while longer, thank you,” Pippin said.
“I’ll stay, too,” Frodo said. He turned to me and smiled gently. “You go, Sam. I know you must be hungry.”
And he must be cracked if he thought I was about to leave him down here alone with Pippin and a ‘clean’ mud hole. “No, that’s alright,” I said. “I’ll stay.”
Strider glanced at the three of us again, then cocked a sideways glance at Legolas that all but said he wasn’t too sure about this. Suddenly, Boromir spoke up.
“I shall stay with the halflings, Aragorn,” he said.
Strider studied him a moment, then said, “You are certain?”
All this still seemed just silly to me, and I probably should have held my tongue, but I sighed and dropped my gaze, and I heard myself mumbling, “Oh, for pity’s sake, we’re not children!”
I thought I’d said it quieter, but I guess not, because when I looked back up everyone was watching at me and grinning a little. My face grew hot.
“Very well,” Strider said, and with a nod to Boromir, he and Legolas turned and headed off. “Remember,” he called back. “Extremely displeased.”
“Whew!” Pippin huffed. “Well, now, that’s done with.”
“Aye,” Merry said. Leaving Boromir’s side he wandered over to Pip, saying, “And now, just what do you have in mind here, Master Took? And don’t you ‘nothing’ me.”
“Oh,” Pippin shrugged and grinned. “I dunno. Maybe I’ll start by finding me a nice long stick and writing something offensive about someone.”
“A poem! A poem!” Frodo cried. “Write a little verse the way you used to when we’d find a nice muddy patch in the road after a rain.”
“And then leave it for whoever came along to read!” Pippin exclaimed. “Fine then! You should illustrate, Merry!” he said, all excited.
“Oh, I should, should I?”
“Com’on, Merry! It’ll be fun. Pleeeeeeease?”
“Stop that, you imp.”
“You’ll do it?”
“Oh, very well.”
Pip was practically bouncing now. He turned to Frodo and said, “You’ll have to help, too, Frodo. You’re better with rhymes, and your hand is finer than mine.”
“Your servant, sir,” Frodo said with a small bow.
I smiled at that little bow. This was my sweet, playful Frodo who didn’t come out much anymore. Grinning, I moved back a bit, dropped Frodo and Pippin’s coats, then sat down beside them. As long as Frodo was happy, I was happy. He didn’t look happy often enough these days. I leaned back on my arms and stretched my legs out and watched them with their heads together, figuring out what to write, even though no one was going to come along and see it. Boromir joined me.
“All this fuss just to write in the mud?” he asked, settling on the grass.
I chuckled. “It must seem odd to you, our hobbit silliness.”
“Odd,” he said with a quiet smile. “A bit, yes. Odd, but . . . I feel strangely drawn to your hobbit silliness.” I just smiled at him, a little surprised, but just listening, letting him finish his thinking. “What I mean is, what they’re doing, well, it looks like . . . like --”
“Fun?” I interrupted. He glanced down at me. “Like that time you whacked Pip’s wrist in practice and the two of them attacked you, and then Strider tried to pull them off and they knocked him on his backside?”
Boromir laughed. “Aye! Like that!”
“Fun.” I smiled up at him. “It’s alright to have fun, Boromir.”
His smile remained, but his eyes grew a little lonelier and he shrugged and looked off, and murmured a small, “I know.”
I watched him for minute, then I had to look away, because I suddenly felt sad for him, this big powerful man of Gondor. I wondered if he hadn’t had much time for silliness and fun, and wondered what that might feel like. He always seemed so steady and sure, but now that I thought of it, when Boromir laughed and joined in the merriment that sometimes went on in camp, he did so almost as if he was surprised to be doing it, like it wasn’t something he knew how to do very well, or had much practice doing.
I had to be imagining that, though, because, well, that just couldn’t be true for anyone, could it? He had a brother and a father, family, and that meant love and closeness and teasing and caring, didn’t it? He had companions . . . didn’t he? He had the men under his command, and surely he had good times. Surely he did.
And yet, thinking back, oh, how he enjoyed it when others would be playful with us! Like the time Legolas hauled Frodo and me back to camp, one of us tucked under each arm, and then when Strider turned Pip upside down and made him apologize to Frodo and me for embarrassing us. Boromir had laughed and laughed. And he so loved it anytime he was included in shenanigans of any kind, but, again, almost holding back a little, like he wasn’t sure how to . . . well, how to play.
I watched him from the corner of my eye as he watched my kinsmen. He had that winsome smile on his face, the one he often had while watching us. Something, I don’t know what, grew big and achy inside me, and I had the sudden urge to go over and hug Boromir and hold him and . . . I don’t know what . . . soothe whatever it was inside him that seemed to call out, so alone and hungry. It seemed peculiar, me wanting to comfort this big warrior, but there it was, and the thought came to me that even a mighty arm and a swift sword couldn’t protect a body from some hurts.
“Right,” Pip now said. “Who shall we write something nasty about then?”
“Sancho Proudfoot, that thieving wretch!” Frodo said.
“No, Maggot! Farmer Maggot!” Merry cried. “He’s always good fodder for a foul verse.”
“Oh, no!” Pip cried. “No one from the Shire. Let’s write about someone new. We’ve met so many new folk.”
“Gimli!” Frodo suggested.
“Uhhh, well . . . let’s leave poor Gimli be,” Merry said. “After what we just tried to do to him --”
“Right. You’re right, of course.” Frodo nodded solemnly. “No more picking on Gimli for a while.”
“Let’s pick on an elf instead!” Pip suggested. “Rivendell was full of elves we can write about.”
“Ohhhh,” Frodo’s smile widened. “Should we?”
“Indeed we should!” Pip said. “In fact, we should write about several. There’s plenty of room, lots of good mud.”
“I like it,” Merry said with a sly smile. “Some of those elves were so snooty. I like the poetic justice of writing a nasty verse about them in mud.”
“Yes!” Frodo said, getting more charged up by the second. “We’ll compose a collection and call it Ode to the Elves!”
“Ode to the Elves!” Pip cheered. “Perfect!”
They all paused to giggle and I rolled my eyes at Boromir who was already chuckling.
“Writing sticks!” Pip cried, and he and Merry looked about, then raced off to a nearby weedy stand where a group of small trees had dropped spindly branches on the ground
Frodo turned to me and smiled softly again and said, “Sam, are you sure you don’t want to go have some sup --”
“I’m sure,” I said. “Don’t you fret about me. I’m just fine sitting here with Boromir.”
I really was. I watched Frodo, a fresh breeze lifting his curls and swirling the fine white linen of his shirt around his slender body. Supper wasn’t nothing compared to watching my Frodo with that smile and that sparkle in his clear blue eyes.
Frodo’s cousins came charging back now, armed with writing sticks. Merry stopped short in front of Frodo and laid one of his sticks across both his palms, like he was presenting a sword. “Your hand is far better than Pippin’s, cousin,” he said with a little bow. “Pray, you do the honors.”
“Hmmph!” Pippin sniffed. “I’d take offense at that, but I said it first.”
Again Frodo bowed to them both. “Your servant once more, m’lords.”
Now they turned and studied the mud and grew quiet. “Right, again,” Merry said. “Back to who we should write about first.”
“Let’s start with the most obvious,” Pip suggested.
Frodo’s grin melted. “You mean Legolas?” he asked, with a fake casual air that wouldn’t have fooled the most trusting of souls.
“Noooo! Oh no, no, no!” Merry quickly said, shaking his head and tossing Pip a quick wink. “Elrond. And his sons. Not that they were snooty, but we could have some fun with them. And maybe Linder! He was a snooty fellow!”
“Aye, he was! Oh definitely Linder!” Pip exclaimed. Then he turned to Frodo and said, “There, there, cousin. You see? There are plenty of elves to poke fun at. We won’t malign your precious Legolas. Will we Merry?”
“Hush up, Pip! Come here and study the mud and we’ll lay this out.”
“Your beloved Legolas is safe, Frodo.” Pippin shot me a glance. “No offense, Sam.”
I stared back at him, barely able to squeak, “None taken.”
But Pippin was on very shaky ground here. Not with me, but with Frodo. Merry was, too, for that matter, though he’d been a bit cagier, and he’d really just been trying to hush Pippin. Pip’s mouth often carried him away when he got carried away, and many’s the time I’d seen him come to near blows with someone over his Tookish blundering. He usually wasn’t looking to make trouble. He just didn’t always stop to think, and he hadn’t this time.
The fact of the matter was, though, Legolas fascinated my Frodo. Oh, it was plain, at least to me, and it looked like I wasn’t the only one who had noticed. Funny, but it honestly didn’t occur to me to be jealous of Legolas. I knew Frodo too well to feel jealousy. I knew he was mine, as I was his, and yet he was the first to understand me wanting to dance with Rosie under that grand party tree, just as I understood how Legolas would fascinate any being. So, Frodo’s little crush didn’t bother me none. In fact, it sometimes made me grin to myself because there was something just plain adorable about the whole thing.
But my Frodo slept snug in my arms every night. We were part of each other, joined, body and soul. Mine was the first face he looked for when he felt lost inside, my hug the first one he wanted to feel when he was overjoyed, or needed comforting. Aye, Legolas was too beautiful for words, even to someone like Frodo who was more used to seeing fair folk than the rest of us were. But there was a soft glitter in Frodo’s eyes when he said my name, especially when he called me “my Sam,” and that glitter was mine alone. Frodo had carved a fixed place in my heart so long ago I couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t there, and I’d never thought to question my place in his. So, goodness me, how could I be jealous? It really was just plain adorable.
But Frodo wouldn’t like this teasing one bit. And he sure wouldn’t like Pippin and Merry hinting and winking about something that was so personal and private to him. Frodo couldn’t hardly stand to admit his fancy for Legolas to himself, so it was flat out hurting him to hear these two scoundrel cousins of his bandying it about like it was a best kept secret everyone knew about.
Frodo was shy about how he felt, embarrassed about it, and the thought that others might have guessed his secret would set him off something fierce. As long as no one spoke of it, Frodo could tell himself that no one knew, and he had nothing to feel squeamish about. But to be called on it right out in the open like this, in front of Boromir, in front of me, oh, no! Frodo was not going to like it, and I felt a tingle shoot along my limbs as I looked at him now.
His face flushed red in seconds, a dark frown of astonishment replacing his gentle smile. But neither of Frodo’s cousins saw it. Merry had pulled Pip to the edge of the mud, and they were both bent slightly, bracing their hands on their knees and leaning over the dark pool as though trying to picture how to start this silly writing. Their backsides faced Boromir and me, and Frodo stood off to one side, stick in hand, anger shooting off him like sparks and a black glow in his eyes.
“What did you mean by that?” Frodo asked in a low voice.
“By what?” Pip asked, paying Frodo no real mind.
“Yes, by what?” Merry added.
“By what you said, Pippin, about . . . about Legolas, and what you said to Sam, about ‘no offense.’ Just what did you mean by that?”
Pippin scoffed, “Oh nothing, Frodo. Forget it. Come help us here.”
“Never mind, him, Frodo,” Merry now said. “Pip just talks. You know how he is. Most of the time he doesn’t really say anything.”
“Well, thank you very much!” Pip poked Merry.
Merry poked Pippin back, and they started a little pleasant quibbling. Neither of them sounded too concerned, but they weren’t looking at Frodo and seeing what I was seeing. Frodo clearly did not think this anything to tease about. He was breathing much too fast and a shiny glaze of fury lit up his eyes. He dropped his stick and began to move towards his cousins.
A bolt shot up my spine and I sat straight up, and Boromir did the same, and I watched, knowing what was about to happen as if it already had. I couldn’t move fast enough to stop anything. I felt stuck in sluggish slowness.
Boromir and I scrambled to our feet, but we’d only taken a half step before Frodo had strolled around behind Merry and Pippin, placed a hand on each of their backsides and shoved, stepping into his push and sending his cousins sailing into the mud where they landed face first with a sickening squelching sound.
It was deeper than it looked.
There was a quiet pause, then two hobbit bellows ripped the air. Merry and Pippin roared and huffed, floundering in goo, trying to get up, their arms waving and mud flying. They grunted and gasped, shook their heads, spat mud from their lips, turned and fell again, and struggled to wipe the glop from their covered faces.
Boromir and I raced forward, but before we even reached Frodo, he’d slogged into the mud and started pushing Merry and Pippin back down every time they tried to get up. He slammed against them with his little self, and he shoved them and kicked their legs out from under them. It was all Merry and Pippin could do to find their feet. They plain couldn’t gain any real footing and fight Frodo back.
I couldn’t hardly believe my eyes. Boromir and I halted and stood frozen for a second, watching, our mouths hanging open. Merry and Pippin kept grabbing at Frodo, and he’d gone down a few times himself from knocking his cousins about, so now he was covered with mud, too, though not wholly drenched as they were.
But it was the look on Frodo’s face concerned me most. He looked like he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing, and the anger in his face – it didn’t hardly even look like my Frodo. In fact – he looked the way he did when he’d thrown a temper tantrum at me – right before the first time I’d spanked him. This was that ‘other’ Frodo.
Before I knew it I was knee deep in muck, wading in, yelling Frodo’s name, Boromir right beside me.
“Frodo!” Boromir roared. “Stop it!”
Boromir reached Frodo before I did. He grabbed him around the waist and lifted him right out of the mud hole. I reached for Merry and Pip while watching Frodo sail upwards, his little legs flying and his feet kicking. Grabbing one of Merry’s slippery arms, and one of Pip’s, I braced myself and leaned back to pull them up.
But, drat my foolishness, I was, after all, in a slick mud hole. My feet slid out from under me and I squashed down, bottom first, into the sticky muck, losing my hold on Merry and Pip, who ended up back on their behinds, chest deep in mud. We just sat there for a minute, all shocked, all watching Boromir grappling with a frantic, thrashing Frodo.
Boromir kept trying to quiet him. Holding him tightly, Frodo’s back against Boromir’s chest, the warrior struggled to close his free arm over Frodo’s wildly flailing ones. “Stop it, Frodo.” Boromir ordered in a stern, calm voice, right against Frodo’s ear. “That’s enough. Settle down.”
But Frodo wouldn’t settle or calm. I’m not even sure he heard Boromir. Frodo just kept kicking and straining, his hot gaze trained on his cousins and his face hardened with fury. Merry and Pip and I struggled to our feet, dripping mud and thunderstruck, watching Frodo writhe in Boromir’s grasp.
Finally, after avoiding Frodo’s kick to a very sensitive place yet again, Boromir growled low and flipped him around. Frodo now lay facedown, tucked against Boromir’s hip and under his muscled arm. And, still, Frodo struggled and grunted, his legs and backside hanging out in front.
“I said enough!” Boromir snarled, and he began swatting Frodo’s little wriggling bottom, sending splatters of mud flying everywhere. He wasn’t spanking Frodo real hard, but hard enough to get his attention, and when Frodo didn’t stop fighting, Boromir just kept right on spanking, doing a right good job of it, too. Finally, Frodo yelped real loud, quit kicking, and just hung there, still at last.
We all just stood for a minute in the sudden quiet, breathing heavy and too surprised to say anything. I couldn’t just stay there, though, so I slogged around behind Boromir to where Frodo’s front half was sticking out.
“Frodo?” I said, quiet-like.
He lifted his face to me and said real softly, “Hullo, Sam.”
I stared at him. He looked like my Frodo again, his gaze a bit teary, but that madness seemed to be gone.
Aye, this was just my Frodo now, looking back at me with those huge startled eyes. “Oh, my poor dear Frodo! Are you alright?”
“I-I think so, but my bottom certainly stings.” He sniffed and brought a soggy sleeve up to rub it under his nose, smearing his face with even more mud. Oh, but he was too perfect!
Boromir watched us over his shoulder. “Are you calm now, little fell beastie?” he asked. “Is it safe to put you down?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, Boromir,” Frodo said in a meek voice. “Would you please?”
Boromir slung him around and held Frodo up before him, frowning and looking him over, like he needed to see for himself that the storm really had passed. Frodo hung there, a muddy, slippery mess, sniffling and rubbing his bottom and glancing shamefaced at Boromir.
“That was quite a performance, little one,” Boromir said. “I’m not at all certain I should release you yet. You might come after me next.”
Merry and Pippin stood dripping muck and trying to wipe off their faces. They really were a sight. I guess I was, too. And then Pippin found his tongue.
“Have you lost yer wits, you dunderheaded loon?!” he bellowed. “Just what was all that about, Frodo? Look at me!” He held his arms out. “Just look at me, you crazed ninny! And Merry! And Sam! Aragorn is going to skin us alive for this, and it’s all your fault!”
“Hold there, young Took!” Boromir said. He’d gathered Frodo against him and settled him more comfortably on his hip, a big hand cupped under Frodo’s bottom. Boromir frowned down at a fuming Pip. “Frodo overreacted, it’s true, but he was provoked.”
“Provoked?” Pippin sputtered. “Provoked by what? A few innocent remarks about himself and --”
“HOLD I said!” Boromir thundered. “There will be no more of that kind of talk, Peregrin, or I promise you, you will regret it. You have embarrassed poor Frodo enough.”
Pippin looked ready to have kittens, but Merry outdid even his livid cousin.
“YOU hold, sir!” he hollered, scowling at Boromir and stepping over in front of Pip, who really didn’t look like he needed help defending himself. Plainly stupefied, Boromir stared down at Merry. The man looked like he wondered if he now had another fell beastie to contend with.
“‘Poor Frodo’ indeed!” Merry spat. “Overreacted you say? There’s an understatement, don’t you think? Frodo went berserk, Boromir! Stone raving crackers! Yes, Pip did say the wrong thing at the wrong moment, but this was a bit extreme, and to hear you defend Frodo now --”
“I wasn’t finished, Meriadoc,” Boromir said, gruff, but in control. “Forgive my interruption, but before you dig yourself into a hole of sass from which you cannot escape, allow me to finish what I was saying.”
Merry glowered up at the warrior, but he stopped his ‘sass’ and angrily crossed his arms over his chest. He’d worn that same look the day we all stood up to Elrond and told him we were going with Frodo on the Quest. Interesting thing about Merry; he could stare down anyone, older, bigger, or stronger, with that Brandybuck frown of his. Strider was the only person I’d ever known to call him on it, and it seemed Boromir had learned from watching the Ranger.
“Do not glare at me, sir, when you know I speak the truth,” he said, then he paused and sighed. When he started talking again, his voice was softer and he looked at Merry was more gentle-like. He tilted his head a bit to one side, and said, “Merry, I wasn’t defending Frodo’s behavior. He was out of control, and he did wrong you and Pip, and if you look at him, I think you’ll see that he knows it.”
Merry did turn his glance to Frodo, and he did see. Frodo’s head hung down, but he lifted his eyes to his cousin and he looked so sorrowful it was almost painful to witness. Frodo seemed too ashamed of himself to even hold Merry’s gaze, much less speak yet. He looked ready to cry, in fact. He really didn’t have to say any words.
“Neither was I trying to attack your Pippin,” Boromir went on. “But I shall not stand by and let Pip bellow at Frodo that it was all Frodo’s fault. And I shall not allow Pip to act as though he did nothing to cause this. You know full well that he did, and if you will stop playing defender long enough to listen to your heart, sir, you’ll see how everything got started and what the truth is.
“It is that underlying truth that I was about to point out before wee Pip started spouting more hot remarks like the ones that started all this. That was what I would not tolerate. So, stand down, young defender of the Took. I come armed only with truth, much as he might not like hearing it.”
Merry shifted uncomfortably, his anger falling away, and a thoughtful, sheepish look replacing his frown. I studied Boromir, purely admiring him. He should have been a diplomat instead of a warrior, although there was probably no finer man in battle this side of Strider.
“You’re right,” Merry said. “Frodo was wrong to act as he did, but he didn’t start all this.”
“Merry!” Pip cried. He grabbed Merry’s arm and yanked him around to yell at him directly. “Look at us! Look what he did to us! What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that Boromir is right, Pip, about everything, and you know it!” Merry said back, real firm-like. Then he sighed and calmed down and went on: “You shouldn’t have said what you did to Frodo about you-know-who, and don’t you dare pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about! You do know, and you did say it, and you were just saying it to poke a little fun at Frodo. So now we’re all standing here, covered with mud, because you have a runaway mouth, and because we both have a deranged cousin who doesn’t like being teased about certain things!”
Pip looked flabbergasted. “So you’re saying this is MY fault?”
“Pippin,” Merry said in a tight voice, “it IS your fault, and it’s mine, too. I should’ve clamped my hand over your mouth to shut you up instead of just winking at you.”
“Now just a moment!”
“You knew Frodo wouldn’t like hearing what you said. Don’t try to deny it!”
“Yes, you were just playing and teasing, but some things aren’t funny to tease about, Pip.”
“But, I --” Pippin looked like he couldn’t decide whether to get teary-eyed or to slug Merry. “I can NOT believe this!” he bellowed. “I’m standing here, we’re all standing here, dripping mud, and you’re scolding me and telling me that you and I are to blame!”
“I’m telling you we got what we deserved.” Merry suddenly turned and said, “Right Boromir?”
Frodo and Boromir and I had all been silent witnesses for a few moments, so Boromir looked surprised to suddenly be called on to speak.
“Oh. Well, uh,” he said, “you are partly right, Merry. Pip, I think you knew full well what you were doing, and what you were saying. There was a bit too much impish delight in your assurance to Frodo that ‘his’ precious Legolas’ wouldn’t be maligned, and his ‘beloved’ Legolas was safe.”
“Oh, Boromir!” Frodo groaned and pushed his face against Boromir’s shoulder, moaning, “Pleeeeease!”
“Sorry, little one,” Boromir said, glancing at Frodo with a soft grin. “And I know you were embarrassed, but you did overreact, Frodo. And I think you’ll agree with me, that your cousins got far more than they deserved. Did they not?”
Frodo lifted his head and winced, then focused wide, sad eyes on the warrior. “Yes, sir.”
“Aye,” Boromir patted Frodo’s leg. “And Pippin shouldn’t have said what he did. It was thoughtless and inconsiderate.”
Pippin made a huffing sound.
“But, Frodo, do you suppose you could have found a better way to show your displeasure other than near-drowning your cousins in mud? Look at them. You can hardly tell them apart.”
Frodo’s eyes lit up with a quiet smile at Boromir’s words. His gaze dropped to Merry and Pippin, and his smile slid to the corners of his mouth. “Yes,” he admitted. “I suppose I could have found a better way.”
“And do you suppose you owe them an apology for flying into such a fit?”
Ever saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, Pip said, “Aye! I should say you do!”
Merry turned to Pip with a snarl. “Pippin! I’m sure Boromir doesn’t mean to leave it there. You need to apologize, too.”
“Then so do you!” Pip shot back.
“And so I will!” Merry replied. He looked up at Frodo with as much sincerity as he seemed able to muster while being all covered with muck. “I’m sorry, Frodo. I should’ve done more to stop Pip’s mouth.”
“OH!” Pippin squeaked. “That’s some apology!”
“It will do,” Boromir said, fastening a sharp look on Pip. “Merry’s words were not what set Frodo off, were they, young Took?”
Pippin pressed his lips together and dropped his gaze.
“Come, Pip. Look at me.”
Pippin obeyed slowly, pout firmly in place.
“Indeed.” Boromir gave Pip a shrewd glare. “So your apology to Frodo will needs sound much different. Now look upon your cousin and consider how he must have felt when hearing your teasing, and then say what you need to say.”
Pippin’s glance slid to Frodo, and they gazed at each other for a moment, then Pip bit his bottom lip, his eyes growing wide, and a sorrowful look, a real one, came over him.
“Sorry, Frodo,” Pip said. “That wasn’t a nice thing to do, teasing you like that, even if it was just a small bit of teasing . . . it . . . it still wasn’t nice, and I’m sorry I made you feel embarrassed.” He paused to sigh. “Merry’s right. I guess some things aren’t funny to tease about.”
Frodo’s face glowed under the drying mud, but he gazed at Pip with that look of his, that dreamy, tender look that melts the hearts of all who see it.
“Oh, Pip,” he said quietly. “It’s alright. And I’m sorry I pushed you into the mud, and kept pushing you in.” He turned his gaze to his other cousin then, and said, “And, Merry, I’m sorry I went ‘stone raving crackers’ on you. I’m so sorry.”
Boromir had lowered Frodo to the muddy pool during his apologies, and now Frodo sloshed over the few steps to his cousins and the three of them came together into each other’s arms.
“I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry,” Frodo muttered a few more times, and, “I don’t know what came over me.”
I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help thinking about the Ring, that poisonous hunk of metal tucked against my beloved Frodo’s chest. I watched him now, seemingly his old self again, and I felt a sick knot in my stomach.
“Such a melancholy look, Master Samwise,” Boromir murmured.
I glanced over. The warrior had crouched down beside me and was watching me closely. He put an arm around me and drew me to his side, and I leaned against him, laying my arm along his muscled leg, then I turned back to Frodo and his cousins.
I sighed and said, “I just . . . .” And I wasn’t sure what to say. I shook my head slightly.
“You have never seen him that furious,” Boromir said in a soft voice.
“No. Well, yes . . . I’ve seen him near that furious, with me. You were off with Pippin at the time, after you spanked him. Frodo was yelling at me in that mean way, and he was planning this bad, dangerous thing, and he . . . he wouldn’t listen.”
“Hmm. That would be what urged you to take him over your knee for the first time, yes?”
“Aye. Because, well, he weren’t himself, Boromir. He just . . . he weren’t my Frodo.”
“So, you are thinking that the Ring is influencing him.”
I felt angry suddenly, and scared, and I turned to look at Boromir, still not knowing what to say.
“Aye, Sam,” he whispered, his eyes full of concern. “Shhh. It’s all right. I know.”
The sound of sudden laughter made us look over at Frodo and his cousins again. They were still linked, arms around each other’s waists, but they’d taken a step back to look at themselves and each other.
“You do look worse than I do!” Frodo exclaimed, and he let fly a bunch of giggles that sailed out and wrapped around everyone, working their magic. Boromir and I couldn’t help ourselves. Our serious talk fell away and we were sucked in by that sweet laugh, grinning soon as we heard it.
“All of you look like filthy little orcs in need of a scrub brush and plenty of strong soap,” Boromir declared.
Talk about baiting! Frodo and his cousins turned on Boromir and me, the three of them wearing dangerous grins. They headed our way.
“Do we now?” Pip said. “Merry, did y’hear what this man said about us?”
“I did indeed,” Merry said, with a smile that was downright hair-raising.
“So did I,” Frodo added, still giggling too much to be threatening.
“Gentlemen, back away,” Boromir said, hugging me closer and holding his free arm straight out in front of him to ward off the oncoming hobbits. “Do not --”
But they did. Before Boromir could finish his warning, Frodo, Merry and Pippin pounced, piling on top of the warrior and me with such force that Boromir lost his balance and we all ended up splayed in the mud.
There was nothing for it. A free-for-all commenced, four hobbits and a Captain of Gondor, laughing and tossing about in the mud. There was giggling and tickling and a scene similar to that tussle with Boromir and Merry and Pippin during sword training, but with two more hobbits in the fray now and everyone a target. I can’t say how long it went on, but what finally stopped it was the sound of someone clearing his throat in that overly loud way meant to demand attention.
We froze and looked to shore.
Of course, Strider stood there. And Legolas. And they looked the same, arms crossed, and watching with too much calm. I’d have been happy to note that Gimli and Mister Gandalf weren’t with them, but this was bad enough.
“Gentlemen.” Strider raised a brow at us. “If indeed, that is what you are beneath all that mud. Apparently, I did not make myself clear.”
To be continued