Beta appreciation notes for original: Kat and Shot. Beta appreciation notes for rewrite: Kat and Derby – thanks my precious, ever patient team.
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 IV
I took Frodo into the privacy of the woods, both of us walking silently, my thoughts drifting to the young warrior sulking back at the fireside.
As a child, my fledgling had been a captivating bundle of intelligence and enthusiasm, his grey-eyed gaze, full of a seriousness ill-suited to his mere four years, following my every move with unfailing adoration. Though tempered by time and adversity, that same regard still lingered in Boromir’s eyes. He often cast a look of engrossed contemplation upon me, and sometimes upon Legolas, as though he was struggling to understand something elusive regarding the two of us.
But he was adapting to the strangeness of his new status well. Of all the Fellowship, Boromir was the one who had needed to adjust his thinking the most. He was Captain of the White Tower, the Steward’s son, accustomed to command and a degree of deference. Boromir was still all those things, but he was not in command here. I doubted he found himself in that position often, if ever. He kept close counsel regarding his new standing, however, I had the feeling that Boromir would assert himself posthaste should Legolas decide to take disciplinary action with his ‘little brother.’
Nevertheless, I heartily approved of what my elf planned to do. I felt a surge of anger yet again, remembering what Legolas had told me when the two of us had talked earlier in a private moment:
“My little brother had stayed in that water for so long his skin had a bluish cast to it. He felt as cold as human death,” Legolas said, his eyes going wide and dark, reflecting his horror at man’s mortality.
“You stood holding him for a long while.”
“Aye, not that he knew it,” Legolas went on in a hushed, angry voice.
He had lapsed into Sindarin. When at his greatest level of distress, Legolas slipped into his native elvish, as though he was simply beyond the extra concentration it took to make that small step into the Common tongue. I took his elbow and moved us further from the others as he continued to snarl his upset:
“I looked closely at him and saw his state. Oh, Estel!” He paused and shook his head, beyond words for a moment, then: “I pulled him to me, perhaps too tightly, but I did not care. I vow, had I not been holding him up, he would have slumped to the ground. He was insensible for a while! I am certain that he knew not the passing of time, nor how long I held him. It seemed he felt that but a few minutes had passed.”
His smoldering fury ignited my own, and I glanced over to the campfire, needing to see Boromir there, safe. Although his broad back was to me, I knew he was still wearing the same pout he had worn all evening, looking as little-boy-like as when I had known him in my Thorongil days.
Legolas ranted on, his fury bespeaking his returning fear. He told me what he had threatened Boromir with: “I was trying to enflame his passion, and it worked. His face flushed and he began to heat up on the inside, and, finally, he came fully alive, and then – oh! How comforting was his hot return fire! I relished his indignation! I answered him quickly and firmly, as I do you when you show me inappropriate sass at the wrong time.”
I flushed and grinned, knowing how formidable Legolas could be when I was over his knee and too insolent.
“It felt good to release some of my anger as well, for he had truly frightened me!”
I reached out and rubbed his arm. “I can see that, meleth nin.”
He looked at me with grim determination. “I mean to follow through with everything I promised him. I shall not allow him to endanger himself so carelessly. It is time he understands what it is to be my little brother in every sense.”
“I agree.” And I had envied Legolas the task. I had been tempted to storm over to where Boromir sat pouting and haul him across my knee then and there. But this duty rightfully went to Legolas, as he had tended to Boromir after his dangerous stunt.
Of course, Legolas knew that there was much more to this than what had met the eye. We exchanged somber looks, and he said, “You know, of course.”
I nodded once, pressing my mouth into a grim line. “He was punishing himself.”
“Aye, Estel. And you know all too well my feelings on that.”
I had winced and squirmed before replying, “If anyone can make a memorable point regarding that matter, you can.”
“I intend to.”
Suddenly, I felt a wave of pity for my fledgling, and yet, I knew he was in the best hands. “Boromir shall not submit willingly,” I said. “He shall fight you.”
“Ohhhh, Aragorn . . . .” His gaze slid to me, his eyes glittering and a dangerous elvish grin whispering on his lips. “I hope so.”
We resolved to discipline Frodo and Pippin first, and at once. I left the particulars of dealing with his little brother to Legolas.
“You shall see to him tomorrow?” I asked. “Or tonight?”
In our earlier council, Legolas, Gandalf, Gimli and I had discussed changing our travel pattern, journeying at night and sleeping by day. Having already been spotted by the crebain, those foul winged servants of Saruman, we realized that we had chanced traveling in the light for too long. We were entering more hostile lands between here and the great peak of Caradhras where Gandalf and I agreed we must attempt to cross the mountains. It was no longer safe to risk open movement in Hollin during the day. It was agreed to let the others sleep later in the morning, rather than rousing them at dawn, and then inform them of our change in plans.
“Tomorrow,” Legolas replied. “It is well that we are making this shift now. He will be rested in the morning when I take him off alone. I shall need time to work this through with him, Estel.”
I nodded slowly, smiling slightly at his use of my elvish name yet again. When his authoritative nature was roused, Legolas simmered in a realm of impressive inner sovereignty, one that often took him back to a time when our roles were different, a time in which he called me ‘Estel.’
“He is safe for tonight then,” I said.
Legolas caught my slight grin and said, “Aye. For now that warrior brat of Gondor shall simply sit there as he is, bare-bottomed, until I see fit to return his clothes.”
“They are indeed dry then?”
Legolas glanced away with a wicked little grin. “I am sure they are by now, not that he will get them.”
“Is that fair, sir?” I asked, quirking a brow at him. “Humbling the ‘warrior brat of Gondor’ just to appease your wrath?”
Legolas snorted. “I feel I am showing extraordinary restraint.”
The feel of a small hobbit hand leaving mine drew my attention. I turned. Frodo had stopped a few steps behind me. He simply stood there now, gazing at the ground before him, looking small and lost.
“Frodo?” I knelt before him, placing my hands on his shoulders. He lifted wide eyes full of bewilderment and glistening tears. “What is it, sweetling?”
He watched me for a long, slow moment, as Frodo had a habit of doing when delving deep within himself. I could see him thinking at such times, turning something over in his mind, his troubled gaze focused on me, without seeing me.
“Nothing,” he finally said.
“This is more than ‘nothing.’”
He blinked, as though coming back to himself and sensing he had best fashion a viable explanation for his melancholy. “I . . . it’s just, well . . . you haven’t spanked me of late, and I guess I’m not looking forward to this.”
I gave him a dubious frown. “Mmm.” Poor Frodo. He told a falsehood so badly.
Pulling him into my arms, I stood, glancing around, then headed for a nearby grouping of moss-covered boulders just waiting to serve my purpose. Frodo wrapped his arms around my neck and his legs around my waist, simple moves that always ignited a warm flicker in my stomach. I felt him studying me. Shifting my gaze to his large eyes, I paused, grinned and gave his tempting mouth a small kiss, then continued on. Choosing the perfect sized boulder, I sat, settling Frodo’s small bottom on my lap.
He leaned into me and rested his head on my shoulder, and that was fine with me. We could stay like this for as long as he liked, though I knew that would not be overly long. Frodo would be thinking of a certain gardener worrying about him back at camp. And he would want to get his spanking over with. He would long for his companion’s loving hand smoothing salve into his bottom, and he would yearn to be on the cusp of sleep, wrapped within the tender arms of his Sam. But, for now, Frodo and I were both content to remain as we were.
After a while, his light voice said against my ear, “When I was apologizing to my cousins today, I kept saying how sorry I was . . . I said, ‘I don’t know what came over me.’”
He paused, a slight tremor coursing through him. I caressed his curls and started rocking a bit, hoping to soothe his sudden distress, but I remained silent, sensing what this was about and knowing he had more to say. Frodo swallowed hard, his little fingers playing with the ends of my hair, his voice even smaller when he began once more.
“I was angry, of course. What Pippin said was embarrassing and I didn’t like it, but Boromir was right – I did overreact. And . . . .” He paused again, pressing himself closer to me, his trembling increasing. “It was . . . it was as though I were trapped inside myself watching myself do those dreadful things. And a voice inside me was screaming, ‘Stop!’ and yet, I couldn’t stop! I wanted to, and I couldn’t. I just kept pushing them down, and knocking them over --”
A tiny sob escaped him. Frodo buried his face in his palms and shuddered, then began to softly weep. “Oh, Aragorn! How could I? How could I have kept doing that to them?”
“Shhh,” I soothed. “Hush, sweetling. I know how frightening it must have been.”
“Yes! To feel that wildly out of control and to not be able to stop!” He jerked back from my shoulder and looked at me with a stricken expression. “What if Boromir hadn’t been there to stop me? I could have done my beloved cousins harm!”
“No,” I said firmly. “You would have stopped yourself first, or Merry and Pippin would have stopped you. They would have gained their feet and overpowered you, and Sam would have helped them.” I gave him a soft smile. “It was only mud, little one. You know Pippin exaggerated his suffering.” I kissed his brow, then said, “I vow that what alarms you most is that you could not stop yourself.”
“Yes.” He gazed at my chest, carefully avoiding my eyes. “It was horrible.”
“I am certain of it.”
He fell silent, then he lifted his sorrowful gaze to me again and, with measured quiet, murmured what I had already felt was true and had hoped he could admit to:
“I think it was the Ring.”
I sighed. “Aye, sweetling.” His rapt expression searched my gaze, finding only compassion.
“I am not looking to escape blame,” he said quickly. “I was the one who lost control. The guilt is mine.”
I smiled at him sadly. “Shhh. Again, you are too hard on yourself,” I said, running my fingertip along his fine jaw-line. “You are responsible for your actions, aye, and you are being held accountable for those actions. You are accepting that responsibility honorably. But you are not ‘guilty’ of anything, Frodo, nor are you entirely to ‘blame.’ It was neither your intent to harm your cousins, nor to go against my orders. Nevertheless, you did both, and there are consequences to be paid.”
Frodo sighed and clenched his hands into fists on his lap, a trick he had started practicing to keep from gnawing at his nails when fretful. I watched him struggling, thinking overly much and working on a genuine upset, so I spoke on to distract him:
“However, this matter of the Ring’s influence over you is indeed something to be mindful of. I spoke to Gandalf about it tonight.” I hesitated, unwilling to tell him all that Gandalf had said:
“I fear that the closer we get to Mordor the more powerful the Ring shall become,” the wizard had muttered to me earlier. “I also fear that its strength grows as Sauron’s strength grows. It wields more force over Frodo the longer it is in his possession.”
Of course Frodo deserved to know this, but my urge to protect him battled my sense of what was right to do and what I wished to do on his behalf. ‘Twas oft the case when it came to Frodo. He was an adult hobbit, mature in halfling years, yet I found it near impossible to think of him as anything but a trusting innocent. I felt a strong desire to protect that. My cosseting of him was doubtless unnecessary, perhaps even inappropriate, but he accepted it with good-hearted tolerance, as did his kinsmen, who we ‘big folk’ tended to coddle to excess.
So my sheltering instincts oft outweighed my reasoning when it came to Frodo, as was the case now. There was no benefit to him knowing of Gandalf’s darker predictions. It would only serve to add to his already heavy burden. So I merely said, “We agreed that some resolution should be reached about what to do when you have clearly been misbehaving due to the influence of the Ring.”
“But, how . . . .” Frodo’s face tightened into a bewildered frown. “How would you determine such a thing? And how would you deal with it differently?”
“Determining that you have acted under the Ring’s influence shall be easy, Frodo. We know when your behavior is unlike you. You know it as well.”
He nodded slowly.
“As to how such behavior should be dealt with . . . .” I sighed. “That is more difficult.”
Frodo went to his thoughtful place again, gazing over my shoulder as though seeing the matter spelled out somewhere behind me. Then he blinked suddenly and he looked at me and I knew he had reasoned out the truth of it.
“Aragorn, whether or not I’m in my right mind when I’m doing something, it’s still me doing it, and it is still being done, perhaps to the harm of another. When I come back to myself again, and I see what I’ve done, I’m left with the feeling of guilt for having done it.”
It was the very conclusion Gandalf and I had reached, and I knew that, in Frodo’s next breath, he would most likely voice what the wizard and I had regretfully determined.
“I shall have to be held accountable for all that I do,” Frodo said, “even if I’m under the Ring’s influence when doing it. If I’m not, where do I go with my guilt? It may indeed be undeserved guilt, but the fact of it remains. It IS. It exists. And it shall haunt me if it is left alone.” His sad-eyed gaze studied me, missing nothing. “You know I’m right, don’t you?”
I sighed again and nodded once, murmuring a regretful, “Aye, little one.”
Frodo tipped his head slightly to one side, “Ah, I see,” he said. “Poor Aragorn. This shall be hard for you. You know what needs doing, and yet the unfairness of it troubles your sense of justice.” Frodo wrapped his arms around my neck again and hugged me, pressing himself close against me, and murmuring, “But there is nothing for it, my steadfast Ranger. We are caught in a web of what is just, as is anyone who disciplines me, Legolas or Boromir or my Sam . . . or . . . or anyone . . . .”
I felt him go suddenly still. Though I could not see him, pressed against me as he was, I sensed him thinking, quickly adding things up, drawing new conclusions. Frodo’s understanding of self-sacrifice ran deep. He loathed the notion that he might be the cause of another’s suffering, so the sudden thought that it would be hard for me to spank him under these circumstances hit him hard. His following strategy came as no surprise.
“But, then again . . . ” he began slowly, thoughtfully, “. . . then again, perhaps you’re right. This does need to be handled differently. After all, I truly am not myself when I’m under the influence of the Ring. So, I agree – in all fairness, I should not be disciplined for whatever I – !”
I gently tugged him back to look at him, his words ending in a gasp of surprise. He stared at me, looking every bit as guilty as he was. I shook my head at him. “As you ever were, you are still a poor liar, Master Underhill.” He winced and blushed and I grinned. “But ‘tis most charming, and it was valiant of you to try.”
I gave him another quick kiss, and then I picked Frodo up and turned him over my lap. He squeaked and gasped and huffed and struggled slightly, mere instinctive reactions I paid no mind to. Quickly unfastening his braces, I pulled down Frodo’s britches, baring his pretty little bottom, and he wriggled and fussed whilst I situated him, then he wriggled and fussed some more – instinct again.
“A piece of advice, little one, should you ever again choose to attempt a similar artifice,” I said, my first hearty swat making him jerk and yelp. “You would do well to consider the facts. I never said you should not be disciplined for your actions when influenced by the Ring. Did I?”
He gasped and huffed and finally gave the only answer he could: “N-Nooo!”
“I said it would be more difficult, and it shall be more difficult to do so, for there is an injustice to the matter that is troubling. But, in this situation, your welfare is more important than the principle. For you are correct, little one; leaving you with your guilt would be even more unfair, and letting you suffer from it even more difficult.”
I began spanking him in earnest now, captivated by the sight of Frodo’s round, bouncy bottom under my hand. His grunted explosions of breath quickly turned into low, fervent cries and he started kicking, his small legs jerking and straining with each blow.
I usually said little at the beginning of a spanking, but I sensed that Frodo needed to hear my voice, so I continued on, leaving him something to think about: “Aye, a spanking might, at times, feel unfair, even though you need it to quiet your guilt, but I fear there is no hope for that. Your discipline shall be seen to, sweetling, regardless of the seeming unfairness of it. As the Ring affects you, so it affects all of us who love you, Frodo. We undertook this Quest willingly, choosing to support you and see to your well being. I vowed to protect you, and I shall do so, even when that means protecting you from your own harmful thoughts. Do you understand, little one?” I knew that he did understand, though I was certain he wished he did not.
“Yes! Unnerst-stand you, s-sir!”
Frodo began weeping with enthusiasm, the soft flesh under my descending palm turning nicely hot and rosy. He wriggled some and kicked some and seemed settled into this, so I continued on, spanking him silently now, letting him take in the familiar feel of it, absorb the truth that nothing had changed, and that, regardless of how he ended up where he was, he would be spanked as I had ever spanked him, with sincerity and with all the love and attention I had to give.
Soon Frodo’s crying became more desperate, his attempts to wriggle away from my hand, stronger, so I began talking again, knowing he would, once again, be eager to listen to anything other than the sound of my swats hitting his burning bottom.
“Shhh, there now, sweetling, you are doing so well. I am proud of you. You were very naughty in the mud, little one, but trust that all that naughtiness shall be taken care of.”
He kicked and sobbed, burying his face in the crook of his elbow as though trying to hide his embarrassment, but Frodo listened, too overcome to respond. I expected no response from him yet, and I had spanked Frodo often enough for him to know it. He did, however, hear me.
“You must trust in those around you who love you, for we are ever watching, ever mindful of you, sweetling. And fret not. Your actions whilst you are under the Ring’s influence shall never save you from a justly-earned tanning.” His answer was an understandable wail. Moving on, I lifted my knee a bit and began spanking the delicate under curve of his bottom.
“NOOOOO!” Frodo squealed, and he lost all control, both his hands flying back to interfere with mine. I nudged them away enough to keep spanking the tender area, increasing the speed of my swats, which usually made Frodo yank his hands back. But this time he bucked up and became more frantic, his cries reaching a Pippin-like level.
“Nooo, noo noooooooo! Stop thaaaaaat!”
‘Stop that?’ I blinked, surprised, but I suddenly realized that Frodo’s behavior during a spanking might also change on occasion due to the influence of the Ring. Poor little mite.
I gathered Frodo’s wrists in my palm and held them at the small of his back, the additional restraint clearly helping to settle him a bit. My heart went out to him, this brave young soul, taking on so much, so unselfishly. I returned my spanks to his reddening cheeks, all the more determined to do for him what he needed and deserved.
“Nooooo! Ar’gorrrn! Pleeeease!” he wailed, shaking with repeated sobs. “No more! N-No more! Enough! Th-That’s enough!”
I paid no attention, of course. But, again, these were interesting things for him to be yelling. He knew very well that I would not stop at his command, nor would I be told when enough was enough. He knew that I was a far better judge of where he was right now than he was. If he needed reminding, though, very well.
“Stop that at once,” I said in a hushed voice. “Is it your place to tell me how much is enough, young hobbit?”
He growled a savage snarl and thrashed about, spewing forth a barrage of filthy elvish phrases. Again I blinked in surprise, but I quickly tightened my hold and redoubled my pace on his bottom, spanking him with just enough increased speed to make a statement. Frodo erupted, squalling over my lap and violently kicking his little britches right off as his cousin usually did. I wondered where he was getting this astounding surge of energy.
But, ah, my poor Frodo! How badly he needed reassurance right now. In all his protests he had not yelled the one thing that he knew would slow my hand. Not a single ‘sorry’ had passed his lips. Frodo was saying much, but he had not said what he needed to say, nor did he intend to. He was instead silently screaming: “Aragorn, help me! Do not let me slip from your care! I need your strength! Show me I am not lost to this Thing!”
And show him I did. I snuggled him closer to my body and spanked away with precision, murmuring to him as I swatted: “Settle down, sweetling. Behave yourself. There is nothing to be gained from such naughtiness. I can keep this up as long as I need to, so enough of your fussing, young sir.”
Soon my steady stream of kindly scolding and relentless spanking took affect and Frodo’s wails were back to simply those of a well-disciplined halfling. He collapsed, exhausted, sobbing in his usual manner, painful to hear, but strangely comforting in its familiarity. We were not, however, finished. He knew that.
“Now then, answer me, my foul-mouthed halfling,” I said, my tone mild, but stern. “Who decides when this spanking ends?”
Frodo coughed and spat out, “Y-Y-Youuu d-ddoooo!”
“Excuse me?” I asked, delivering a powerful whack.
Frodo squealed, grooming his response at once. “Y-Youuu d-d-dooo, s-sirr!”
“Ah. Indeed. I thought as much. I agree,” I said, slowing my spanking and lightening my swats. “Do foul-mouthed little hobbit-brats tell me when enough is enough?”
“NOOO!” he roared.
“I did not hear you.” Another strong whack.
Again checking his tone, he said, “N-Noooo, sir-sirrr!”
“No. They do not. They do, however, get their impertinent mouths washed out with soap when they use such naughty language.”
Frodo buried his face in his palms and wailed his humiliation. “Ohh, n-n-nooooo!”
“Frodo? Will you need a session with the soap tomorrow?”
I quirked a small grin.
“I-I-I me-mean, uh-huhhhh, s-sirrr!”
I smiled to myself and slowed my spanking even more. “Do you have something to say to me, little one?”
“I-I’m sor-sorry! I’m s-so sor-sorry!”
“F-For-for disobeying your or-order, and f-for the m-mud and-and --”
It was too much for him, though he had been trying, so I stepped in to help him. “For losing your temper? For disregarding my orders? For pushing your cousins into the mud, then following them in yourself, and for repeatedly shoving them back down, and for thereby causing Sam and Boromir to end up covered with mud as well?”
“And for using such vile language just now?”
“Yesssss! Sorrry! So-so sorry, Ara-gorn!”
“I know, little one. I know. And all is forgiven.”
I stopped spanking, my words causing a fresh burst of weeping from Frodo. This was the furthest I had taken him, just to the edge of what I sensed was his level of endurance. But he had truly asked for this intensity, provoking it with responses he knew I would not tolerate, begging to be shown that he could still count on getting what he needed, regardless of how the Ring factored in.
I rubbed his back and rested my palm across his scalded bottom, my hand nearly covering the whole reddened surface. Much as I longed to haul him up into my arms, I let him rest there, quivering for a few minutes, sobbing into his palms, so very safe across my lap.
“Shhhh, all over now,” I said. “I am so proud of you, little one. You did well, so very well.”
I continued whispering soft words to him until his shudders slowed and his breathing eased. And when I could no longer bear the wait, I gathered up his limp body, bundling him against me, holding his sore bottom suspended over my lap. Frodo’s legs encircled my waist and he burrowed closer. He sighed deeply, releasing a few hiccups and his last weak bits of weeping, shuddering and rubbing his teary face against my shoulder. I near shuddered myself from the breathtaking intimacy of the moment.
Would I ever tire of small hobbit arms clinging to my neck and little legs curled around my waist? There was simply nothing like it. I could become lost in the contentment of it. I sometimes found myself ignobly hoping that the well-spanked halfling would take a long time to calm, that I might enjoy more of this sweet interlude. I had spanked all four of them at least once, and there always came afterwards this enchanted respite. I often wondered who received the greater measure of comfort, for I could not imagine that the little one gained any finer gift than what these moments gave to me.
The comfort after a spanking was dear to me regardless of who had been over my knee. I relished the feel of a charmingly disheveled Legolas shuddering in my arms, his backside throbbing, my elfling driven to that shattered state by my hand, my discipline. He, too, became lost in that tender consolation following his spanking, sometimes drowning within a euphoria that ignited his passion so feverishly it took me hours to satisfy his prodigious elvish desires. Not that I minded in the least.
With Boromir, it was again, something different. I cherished my fledgling’s strong body, relaxed in my arms, my stalwart warrior reduced once more to the treasured little boy I had loved so long ago. I realized what Halbarad had felt when spanking me, or what Garrick felt when spanking Devon, the feel of a muscular human warrior, over my knee, heavier than an elf, more solid, yet just as comfortable, a dormant power lying impotent in my arms, vulnerable and trusting and completely mine. As with this endearing halfling, or my impassioned elf, Boromir was uniquely splendid, igniting exquisite sensations within me.
And now I yearned to hold Frodo this way long into the night. I nuzzled his impossibly soft curls, fighting off thoughts of our Quest and what might lie ahead. It was dangerous for me to think such thoughts, for imaginings of anything harming him only served to make me furious, my frustration surging. I could not remove this duty from him. I could only do my best to protect him. But that alone did not seem enough. I wished to do more.
But I had this. I could enjoy our quiet moment of mutual bliss, and I squeezed my eyes shut, struggling against the cruel passage of time, concentrating on each delicious element, the sound of this beautiful little one’s breathing, his soft sighs and the honeyed, almost elvish scent of him. Frodo’s voice, slightly hoarse and barely above a whisper, now called to me:
“Do you promise, Aragorn?”
I opened my eyes and turned my head to kiss his smooth cheek. “Promise what, sweetling?”
“D-Do you promise to . . . to . . . .”
I smiled. “To keep spanking you as I just did when you are deserving of it?”
He buried his face in my shoulder and nodded.
“I promise, dearest Frodo,” I said. “And I am certain you can count on your Sam to do the same, and the others as well. None of us shall go easy on you because you have acted under the influence of the Ring, for you would know of it, would you not?”
Again he nodded.
“Aye. So you shall be spanked as you ever have been spanked when you misbehave, with no leniency or quarter given for any circumstance. Is that understood, little one?”
He released a small sob wrapped in a giggle. He nodded once more. “Yes, sir.”
Leaning back against my arms, he turned a peaceful gaze upon me. Frodo looked himself again, relaxed, though quite adorably disheveled, a bedraggled, child-like mess. I had to steal a small kiss, then I shook my head and sighed and smiled sadly at him.
“Faith, but you are unsightly, Master Underhill.”
He blinked and released a tiny grin. “Please, Strider. Do speak plainly.”
I chuckled. “Such hobbit-cheek.” Playing with his tousled curls, I said, “Would you like to see something humorous?”
I cupped my hand under his chin and turned his head to the side. There, strewn atop a nearby bush, lay a pair of hobbit breeches. Frodo burst into giggles.
“Pippin usually loses his britches,” I said, “but I have ne’er seen him kick his quite so far.”
Frodo bit his lower lip, still giggling, and glanced back at me shyly, a blush beginning to flood his cheeks. “I am almost tempted to brag to him of it,” he said.
“You should,” I replied. “In fact, I shall announce your triumph to the Fellowship back at camp.”
“NO!” Frodo squeaked.
“Gentlemen,” I said, feigning a mock announcement, “Frodo Baggins just managed to kick his little britches a good four feet, two feet further than Peregrin Took, our former britches-kicking master.”
“Aragorn, stop!” Frodo cried, clouting my chest with his small fist. He giggled more, saying, “You would not say such a thing!”
I laughed and rubbed my hands over his back. “Nay, little one, I would not. Well . . . ‘tis likely I shall not.”
“I probably shall not.”
I laughed. “Nay, sweetling. I shall not. But it might be worth a little embarrassment in order to see Pippin’s reaction to such an announcement.”
Frodo had to burst into laughter now. “Perhaps, but it wouldn’t be your embarrassment at stake, sir!”
I nodded once. “True enough.”
He leaned in against me with a few murmured, ‘tsks’ and said, “You are the limit, sir. You and Legolas both, simply the limit.”
I kissed his head. “Aye. We are.”
Frodo calmed and grew quiet, then he drew back and watched me silently for a long moment, then said, “I . . . I sometimes do not know how to thank you, to tell you how much I . . . how much I --”
I gathered him close again, saying, “Shhh, sweetling, there is no need. I know.”
He hugged me tightly, nuzzling his face beneath my hair to my neck where he placed a small kiss. I held him, allowing him what time he needed. Again his fingers played with the ends of my hair. “Sometimes,” he began in a dreamy tone, “. . . sometimes I want to stay like this for . . . well, for --”
“I know.” I smiled to hear him voicing my own earlier thoughts. “As do I, little one.”
“But, I want to stay because I feel safe here, in your arms. Why . . . why would you --”
“Because you feel safe here in my arms, Frodo.”
He paused, then nestled even closer. “How wise you are, my Ranger.”
I kissed his curls. “Aye, but I fear a certain young gardener would come hunting us and scowl at me did I keep you to myself for too long.”
Frodo giggled softly, his breath tickling my neck.
“And he would scold me for keeping his beloved master away from him and the cooling salve.”
Frodo sat back to smile at me. “He would indeed, sir. Indeed, my Sam would.”
He suddenly looked exhausted. I leaned over and snagged his britches from the bush. “Come then,” I said. “Let us slide these on for the journey back,” I said, helping him dress. He winced when the cloth touched his bottom, so I let them dangle just under his backside, scooped Frodo up on my hip, stood, and said, “We shall pull them up all the way just before we enter the campsite.”
He smiled prettily in response, and I headed off, saying, “Once again, you and Pippin shall be stretched out on your stomachs, over your partners’ laps at the same time, while my salve is applied to your naughty backsides.”
He ‘tsked’ and shot me a frown of mock indignation. “Your tact, sir, rivals the dwarf’s. And Boromir is right about that wretched ‘n’ word.”
I hated that wretched ‘n’ word.
Strangely, Aragorn had arrived back at camp with Frodo at almost the same moment that Legolas arrived back with Pippin. It was remarkable, and everyone, save myself, laughed and marveled and said they had to have arranged it, which was clearly impossible. And then came the nonsense with that word that made me cringe:
While the others had been off taking care of disciplinary procedures, Sam and Merry had worked out arrangements for sharing Aragorn’s salve. The packet now sat between the two of them. Merry turned his back to the fire in order to insure Pippin a bit of privacy when he began smoothing salve into the little one’s burning bottom, and Legolas swung Pippin down to his cousin’s arms, saying “Here, Master Brandybuck. One naughty bottom ready for the salve.”
I winced. And I felt the elf smile my way.
Sam had also turned his back to the fire. Frodo was displaying both fortitude, and his freshly-spanked demeanor, by walking hand in hand with Aragorn, as when they had left, rather than being carried back, although I suspected Frodo’s feet hadn’t been on the ground for long before they re-entered the campfire’s circle of light. Aragorn escorted Frodo to Sam, passing the Ringbearer’s hand to his servant’s.
“And a naughty bottom for you to salve as well, Master Samwise,” Aragorn said.
I closed my eyes and clenched my jaw. Perhaps I was imagining it, but I swore these two were deliberately trying to rile me, both of them knowing how I hate that wretched word.
“And one naughty bottom still left here with no breeches!” Gimli announced with a snort.
A hushed pause followed. My eyes flew open, my face instantly afire. I shot a glance around. Legolas and Aragorn exchanged grins. Merry and Sam’s shoulders were shaking while Pip had lowered his head and covered his mouth with both hands, flinching with giggles, his feet wiggling. Frodo had turned his head away from me entirely, but he was also quivering with laughter.
I knew this was fond beleaguering. I knew none of them meant any harm, but were, in fact, trying to help pacify me and lighten my sour mood. This kind of gentle needling usually worked for any of us. No malice was ever intended. But I was past cheering, well locked into a darkness that was, at the moment, of comfort, however bleak. And I was certainly not eager to hear Gimli grunt another:
Hobbit giggles were, once more, poorly disguised.
I bit down on the side of my tongue and turned my darkest scowl upon the dwarf. Though my glower never failed to make the staunchest Gondorian warrior blanch, Gimli merely watched me with frank amusement. For all his gruff kindness and his shrouded good-hearted spirit, the dwarf worried little about the disapproval of others. He simply gnawed his dratted pipe, his narrowed eyes now positively glittering.
“You’ve nae sense of humor tonight, laddie,” he finally remarked. “I fear the mud and cold waters robbed ye of yer goodwill. Aragorn, this sprout has been poor company since you left. The stone statues of Rivendell were more lively.”
“My apologies, Master Dwarf, for leaving you with such a petulant companion.” Aragorn leaned towards Gimli a bit, adding in a pretended secretive tone, “But, pray you sir, go easy on the ‘laddie.’ He has had a hard day.”
A small part of me wanted to smile and give in, reward them for all they were trying to do. It was for my benefit, all this attention. But when I reminded myself of what I was wearing and how I must look, of how I must have looked earlier, dripping with mud, of the things Legolas had said to me by the lake, and of that bitter sense of loss and humiliation, all thoughts of letting their affection comfort me vanished.
I said nothing, but I again closed my eyes, biting down more savagely on my tongue, focusing on the sting and quickly tasting blood. A moment later I sensed movement. Opening my eyes, I saw that Legolas had crossed to me and was now quickly sinking into a crouch in front of me, his back to the hobbits.
He leaned in close and whispered, “You shall either stop that at once, little brother, or I promise you, I shall have you over my knee before you can blink. Nay, do not look surprised. You are harming yourself cleverly, in a place none can see. But I can smell the blood in your mouth, so do not think you can hide what you are doing from me.” I glared at him, forming a scathing reply, but he went on:
“Ah, ah, ah!” He shook his head at me, leaned in again, and whispered, “I am being considerate and avoiding embarrassing you in front of the little ones. But do not try my patience. Now behave yourself. Curb that temper, and no more biting, naughty brat of Gondor, or I promise to make you very unhappy indeed.”
I nearly choked on my rage. Legolas rose and moved away with his easy grace, saying, “I shall check on this one’s clothes, Aragorn.”
“Surely they are dry by now,” Aragorn stated.
“Oh, most certainly,” the elf replied, heading for the oak.
I turned my gaze back to the fire, concentrating on the swirling orange and yellow flames, struggling to calm down. I’d been relieved earlier when Aragorn did not include me as one of those to be disciplined. I’d wondered at it, but then I realized that my disgrace was mine to handle, for, indeed, I was the only one who fully understood it. To the others it appeared that I’d done something heroic by stepping in and stopping Frodo, but I knew the truth – I had broken a warrior’s code of honor regarding the following of orders. True, there had been no avoiding the necessity of going into the mud to help the little ones, but the choice to indulge in further playing about was mine.
The others wouldn’t see that truth. No matter. I knew. And I could not expect Aragorn to discipline me for it. Why should he be bothered? I had known that fact somehow, deep inside, when I had begun my personal penance in that frigid water. And it was no one’s business how I chose to deal with my dishonor! No one need concern themselves on my account and no one need interfere, least of all an elf with an over-inflated sense of authority!
I had assumed that, when Aragorn let my stint in the water go, Legolas would have also dropped his dictatorial attitude. But, clearly, he had not. That he would dare to speak to me so, and to still be threatening to . . . to spank me! This was getting worse. Whatever Legolas was doing, it was going to stop! He and I were going to have words, and probably more than that, for I had tolerated enough of his insolence, more than enough.
Aragorn strolled around the fire and sat down next to me. I had nothing to say to him. I had sat there all evening, feeling absurd, feeling confused and teased and cross and strangely outcast. All I wanted at the moment was to be alone. I would have volunteered to take all watches this night if I’d had my clothes. Solitude had ever been a source of comfort for me, and would that I could seek it now. I was far too agitated to sleep. I longed to pace. I longed to be alone, spewing forth as many foul curses as I could think up without the fear of shocking innocent little ears or risking the threat of a soapy mouth. The dwarf was right – I had no goodwill left. But he had understated the matter.
Turning quickly to Aragorn I said, “When the elf brings my clothes, I would like to relieve Gandalf at the watch.”
Aragorn glanced at me, then drew forth his pipe and snicked open his blade to scrape at the bowl. “The elf?” he repeated softly. Pulling his pouch from his pocket, he concentrated silently on filling his pipe, then said, “Gandalf has been on watch for less than half a full shift. You need to rest, my fledgling.”
“I am not sleepy,” I muttered, feeling a twinge in my stomach at his endearment.
“Nevertheless. You have had a long day. You must at least be weary in body if not in mind. Legolas is to take the next watch. I wish to keep you close beside me tonight, to make certain you are warm and resting.”
That twinge lurched into my chest. “I appreciate your concern, sir, however, I believe I am more fit to judge my own condition than you are.”
Aragorn halted his movements and turned a slow, long look upon me. I froze, facing his unflinching stare with commendable poise.
“Ah. Is that what you believe?”
I lifted my chin and replied, “Aye . . . my lord.”
He studied me for a long moment, then turned his attention back to his pipe, saying, “Very well, Boromir.”
I let go a breath, then made one last push. “I would take all watches this night.”
He sighed and looked off, then turned to me and said in a low, forceful tone, “I shall allow you the remainder of Gandalf’s watch, and a shift of your own, but when Legolas comes to relieve you, my fledgling, you are to return to camp. I shall be waiting for you, and here you shall remain, lying quietly next to me until morning. Is that clear?”
It was better than nothing. I frowned, but I gave him a quick nod.
“I would not tempt ‘the elf’s’ forbearance this night,” he added. “He has none left for his errant little brother.”
I seethed inwardly, but at least Aragorn had used the word ‘errant’ instead of that word I hated. A fluid movement beyond his shoulder caught my eye. Legolas moved into the circle of light, my clothes in his arms, and I scrambled up clumsily, my muscles stiff from sitting for so long. Muttering my thanks when he handed them to me, I slipped away to the shadows to dress, then returned Aragorn’s duster to him and went off, with no further word to anyone, to relieve the wizard.
“Sleeping late, a nice big breakfast, and maybe, if we do well in practice, a bit of second breakfast --”
“Pip.” Merry gave his cousin a slight frown.
Pippin ignored him and swung his small sword back and forth in Boromir’s casual manner. “What? I was only about to say that this traveling at night might not be so bad after all.”
“It’s the sleeping during the day that’ll be hard,” Sam grumbled, strapping on his sword belt.
Boromir came striding past them, saying, “Well, young sir, I shall do my best to wear you out so that you can at least nap some this afternoon before we begin our first nighttime march.”
“Wear yourself out some as well, Boromir,” Aragorn said, heading towards where I sat on the lowest branch of the oak. “You will also need rest.”
“Oh, I am certain these four shall exhaust me,” Boromir called back. “Come, young Shireling warriors. Let us make up for our missed practice.”
“His spirits certainly have changed overnight,” Pippin remarked.
“Aye, he is a different person with his clothes on,” Sam muttered, watching Aragorn pass, chuckling at his words. “I still think I should be allowed to come with you in search of kingsfoil.”
“You need practice in swordsmanship more than you need practice hunting out athelas,” Aragorn said, glancing back at the pouting gardener. “You can help me mix some more salve later.”
“I suppose that’s better’n nothing,” Sam said.
Aragorn looked back again and said, “Frodo, that is enough water.”
Frodo kept drinking from the skin. Aragorn watched him for a moment, then he stopped walking. “Frodo!”
The halfling lowered the skin and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He cast Aragorn a sullen look and grumbled, “But I can still taste that nasty soap.”
“My sympathies,” Aragorn replied, turning and heading my way again. “Remember that the next time you are tempted to regale me with filthy elvish.”
Pippin shook his head at Frodo and ‘tsked.’ “Regaling the Ranger with filthy language. I’m shocked and appalled, dear cousin. And elvish filthy language at that!”
I dropped from the tree, saying, “Peregrin, need I remind you of why your bottom is sore right now?”
Pippin was clearly feeling exceptionally daring with his sword in hand. He grinned mischievously and said, “My bottom is sore because you spanked me last night.”
Merry closed quickly on his cousin, grabbed him by the elbow and began steering him off, following Boromir, saying, “Honestly, Pip, you defy belief.”
“Hold!” I demanded. The two hobbits paused and turned to me.
Merry frowned at Pippin and said, “I think you’d better give Legolas a proper answer, Pip.”
Pippin sobered and gave me a rueful grin. “My bottom is sore because I was teasing Frodo.”
“Well --” Pippin flashed a look of exasperation around to those of us watching. “For goodness sake! Am I never to tease Frodo again? I’ve been doing it all my life, y’know. It may take me a fair bit of time to shake the habit.”
Aragorn and I exchanged wry grins. “Of course you can still plague your cousin,” he said. “But use discretion, young sir. A bit of good judgement. A touch of wisdom. There is always a place for that, is there not?”
Pippin looked thoughtful. “I suppose so. All right. I’ll do my best. As Sam says, ‘it’s better’n nothing.’” He cast a glance back at Frodo, who seemed more interested in sneaking another drink than he was in the matter at hand. Frodo held the skin close to his chest, his hand on the stopper, and he flinched when Pippin shot back, “Sorry, cousin.”
Frodo huffed, clearly vexed that Pip’s apology had gained him the group’s focus again. He quickly dropped his arms to his sides, and muttered, “Think nothing of it.”
Aragorn strolled over to Frodo, grinning in his lopsided manner. He took the skin from the grumpy-looking Ringbearer, turned him in the direction Boromir had taken, and gave him a gentle swat on the bottom, propelling him forward. Frodo squeaked and scooted ahead to catch up with his waiting cousins.
“Keep him away from the water unless he is desperate, Sam,” Aragorn said to the last remaining hobbit. “He is not thirsty. He simply does not like that soapy taste in his mouth. But too much water shall make his stomach slosh about in practice and he will feel sick.”
Sam nodded and hurried after his kinsmen. Frodo could not be in better hands.
Gandalf and Gimli had already made their way down to the field below our hillside encampment, taking up positions to watch the sparring, Gandalf with his pipe and Gimli with his sharpening stone and one of his battle axes. Those weapons of his must have been sharp enough to slice wind by now.
I strolled to Aragorn’s side and we headed off for some cherished privacy and to search out his healing plants.
“He uttered no word to me when I went to relieve him last night” I said. “Did he sleep?”
“I think not.”
“Not at all?”
“Every time I stirred he was still wide awake, and clearly had been, for he was not groggy. One time I turned over and could not feel him there, so I sat up quickly to look for him. He was beside me, sitting there, cocky as you please, whittling away at a stick. He even had the cheek to look bewildered by my alarm.”
I shook my head slightly and sniffed. “Obstinate brat. So, you caught him sitting up and whittling. What did you --”
Aragorn reached into his pocket, pulled out Boromir’s knife and held it up. Again I sniffed a grin.
“I made him go toss the stick he was whittling into the fire, then come back and lay down, next to me. Then I curled up around his back and held onto him until morning. I vow I could feel him seething through his clothing. But at least I knew where he was,” he said, pocketing Boromir’s knife once more.
“I would be jealous did I not know that I would have done the same thing.”
“You would have,” Aragorn said.
“Besides, jealousy is not an elvish trait.”
“Estel,” I said, laughing. “You can say that? Knowing Gwin as you do?”
He joined in my soft laughter. “Well, Gwinthorian shatters many elvish standards of behavior.”
“Aye, there is an understatement. You are still too dear to Halbarad’s heart for Gwin’s comfort, Estel.”
“I know,” he said, flashing me a roguish grin. “But Halbarad never seems to mind relieving his fears.”
“Nor confirming his devotion to his elfling.” I matched his grin.
Aragorn paused, then knelt and flicked open his own blade to glean a patch of athelas. Going down on one knee beside him, I held open the satchel I had slung across my chest. Aragorn took only a portion of the plant, then he murmured an ancient elvish blessing over what he left behind. We moved on, continuing to talk and gather more athelas as we went.
“So now he has had no sleep for a full day and night,” I said.
Aragorn grimaced and shook his head. “He was too agitated to sleep.” He glanced at me and said, “You were right, mellon nin, I should not have talked you out of dealing with him during his long watch last night.”
I tried to think of something comforting to say.
“I felt he needed time alone,” Aragorn said, “time to work out his anger before you confronted him and added to his anger, and then disciplined him for staying in that water for too long. It seemed like he should be given that chance to . . . try.”
“I know.” And I did. “Aragorn, I do understand. I thought to do the same thing for you, remember? After the soaping you gave me and Boromir, you slipped away into your anger and self-punishment.”
“As he is doing.”
“But, as you are now doing with Boromir, I gave you a little time to come to terms with it.” I shook my head. “I did not see my mistake either. It was too much to expect from you. From anyone.”
“Aye, again you are right. He shall not find his way out of this darkness alone.”
“He shall try. He has learned some way to cope with it over the years, but it is a way of loneliness. He shall push his own needs aside over and over, sacrificing himself again and again in an attempt to atone for some nonsensical error he has blown out of proportion in his mind. It cannot be permitted to go on. It could end tragically.”
“I know. I should have listened to you last night,” Aragorn repeated.
I smiled gently at him. “Do not blame yourself. Remember that I tried to do the same for you. As you did then, Boromir now yearns for something, but he knows not what he needs. He merely feels certain that he wants nothing from anyone, especially from me. So he is masking his darkness with this feigned pretense of good will, as he surely had to do so over the years. And he is avoiding me and my predatory mood.”
Aragorn chuckled softly. “I would not want a predatory Legolas hunting me, either. And he shall start to weaken unless he gets some sleep.”
“He must be growing weary. By this afternoon he shall be exhausted.”
“Aye.” Aragorn sighed. “Not that he would show it.”
“Nay, his temper shall begin to suffer.”
Aragorn sighed and nodded. “Aye, that is true.”
“Ai! the stubbornness of men! His suggestion to have a long practice session with the hobbits was a brilliant maneuver, though – hiding his intent behind a desire to help tire them out, in the hopes that they will nap later! Clever. He knew you would not argue with him.”
Grinning softly, Aragorn said, “A warrior adept in strategy. But I think he was also sincerely trying to help the halflings, since they missed practice last night.”
“Aye, but it was as though he knew I had planned to take him off alone today and spank him.”
“You have threatened him twice now, elfling mine. It cannot have been a hard supposition to reach,” Aragorn pointed out. “But I think he is simply trying to escape another maddening scene with you. I doubt he believes that you are planning to actually spank him, nor that you are capable of it.”
“I agree. His arrogance says as much.”
“If Boromir understood your actual strength, he would not be so scornful.”
“He is in for quite a shock, Estel.”
Aragorn snorted. “Indeed. Ah, my poor fledgling.” He glanced at me. “You allowed him to get away with his maneuvers, though. You could have confronted him this morning, taken him aside and demanded time alone with him --”
“Aye. I could have. I could have told him that, if he insisted on remaining in the company of others to avoid a reckoning with me, that reckoning would simply take place in front of those others. It would make no difference to me, but it might prove highly embarrassing for him.”
“Four wee halflings make a poor shield.”
“Aye, or so he shall find out, should this continue.”
“You intend to deal with him this afternoon, then?”
I watched him stuff more greenery into the pouch. “That is my hope. I would like to get him alone and over my knee as soon as possible, for he also needs sleep. It is one thing to scoop up a drowsy halfling and carry him, but not even I could haul my little brother for long should he begin to stumble tonight. Ai! the stubbornness of men!”
Aragorn laughed. “You are repeating yourself.”
“It bears repeating.”
He went quiet for a moment. “I know you shall do what is best for him --” he finally said, his voice suddenly soft, “-- as you have ever done for me. You understand him well, beloved.”
I smiled. “I understand one very much like him.”
“Hmm.” Aragorn paused, then took my hand. “Here it is.”
“It” was a natural bed of moss settled inside a large rock formation that had tumbled into this ravine eons ago, forming a grouping that resembled a three-sided natural shelter with this soft patch lying within. Aragorn turned to me, his eyes smoldering. Shivers raced through me at the mere sight of him. Astonishing that, after so long a time together, Aragorn could still, with one seductive look, reduce me to a quivering youth.
“You do indeed remember every inch of this country,” I murmured.
He gave me a lazy grin. “As do you.” His grin broadened as a blush warmed my cheeks. “You knew where I was headed.”
Aragorn gave me a soft, triumphant smile and drew me with him to the natural bed we had found long ago. “I would have you all to myself for a while now, pretty elfling mine.”
“Alas, my lord, for only a little while,” I said in a hushed voice.
He gathered me close. “Ah, well,” he purred, his lips brushing over mine, “as Sam says, ‘it’s better’n nothing.’”
To be continued . . .