Soft
by Laura Mason

"You have a stout heart, little hobbit."

I'd said that days ago and it was true. The hobbits were brave, braver than I expected. Despite my friendship with Bilbo, I knew typical hobbits were soft. And these four were very typical; they'd lived in the Shire, among good and simple people, never wanting food or a warm bed. They'd never journeyed beyond walks within the Shire. Never had to endure hardship, pain, or loss.

They didn't exactly complain to me. No, they hardly spoke to me at all, except Frodo. But they grumbled to each other, a constant stream of comments on the lack of food, the cold, the discomfort of sleeping on the ground or going without a fire.

It was my people, the Rangers of the north, who'd kept them ignorant of the wide world around them. The Shire was surrounded by dangers, but my people had spent generations protecting them.

Now Frodo was carrying the most dangerous object in all of Middle Earth through a wilderness full of dangers, pursued by Sauron's most favored servants. Yet still the hobbits joked and laughed, still they ate apples and hummed songs. And lay in their bedrolls at night, each claiming the most discomfort.

"Shan't sleep a wink tonight, Pip," Merry's voice, soft but clear. "Too many rocks here."

"Aye, it's the worst camp yet," Pippin agrees with a yawn.

"You're joking," Frodo insists. "This is more pleasant than the marshes."

"Aye, no neeker-breekers here," Sam says, putting out his pipe and wrapping up. "We've walked enough today that I'll sleep well, even on this dirty rock."

Frodo remains seated by the dying fire, and I see his eyes are on the stars. Despite all the complaints, snores are the next sound I hear from the three recumbent hobbits.

"Strider?" Frodo's soft voice startles me a little. I must have been dozing. I need to remain alert and watchful, but their breathing is lulling me.

"Yes?"

"I'll keep watch for a few hours if you'd like. I'm not at all tired."

I look at his face, wondering if there's trouble. What I see is concern for me. "Are you certain?" I could use the sleep; I've hardly rested since we left Bree.

"Yes." He seems alert, so I wrap myself in my cloak and lie down, and fall asleep almost instantly.

It seems but a moment when Frodo wakes me, shaking my shoulder as he yawns. But the moon's position shows me I have slept for hours.

"Sorry, but I can't stay awake."

"That's fine. Thank you." I stand and walk for a while as he settles in next to Sam. The wind is full of the usual night noises, nothing alarming or unusual. I feel much better for the rest I've had, and the sky is still clear, thankfully. I can't imagine how bad weather would slow us. The journey is already taking longer than I'd hoped.

I glance at Frodo again, who seems to be asleep. 'Fairer than most,' indeed. Gandalf didn't lie when describing Frodo, though he didn't mention the sweet thoughtfulness of his nature. No wonder Bilbo loves him so.

***

The scream cuts through me as I rush up the hill, my sword already in hand. Frodo has been injured, but I cannot pause to think of that as I fight the Nazgul with fire and blade. Parry, turn, go under its guard and strike with the torch. It seems to go on forever, until my arms are weary and I am gasping for breath. Then, at last, it is over.

When the last Wraith is vanquished, I look around. The three hobbits are with Frodo, who lays pale and bleeding. The wraith left, not because of my valor, but because they have accomplished their mission.

"Strider!" But I hardly hear Sam's cry, frozen for a moment at the sight. Frodo's wounding hurts me more than I thought possible. I've only known these hobbits a few days, and while I've protected them and fed them, I am certainly not attached to them. But seeing Frodo writhing in pain, panting for breath, is like being wounded myself. I move beside him to examine him.

"He's been stabbed by a morgul blade," I tell them, watching the foul thing dissolve when I touch the hilt. "This is beyond my skill to heal. He needs elvish medicine." It is only after I've picked him up and begun carrying him that I realize I am planning to run all the way to Rivendell with him in my arms. Which I cannot do, even if I didn't have to care for Merry, Pippin and Sam. They are following me, proving that in an emergency hobbits can pack up as quickly as Rangers, but we cannot run all night without food or sleep.

Still, it will be best to leave this foul place behind us. We will camp in a few hours.

"Hold on, Frodo," I whisper, and I hear him cry for Gandalf.

***

I finally stop when we are all stumbling with weariness and pale dawn is lighting the eastern sky. Frodo is still conscious, shaking with pain and fever. Sam runs to him as soon as I lower him to the ground, bringing a blanket to wrap him. I quickly build a fire while Merry and Pippin unload the pony.

"I'll keep watch, Strider," Sam offers, sitting beside Frodo. "I'll wake you in a few hours."

"We can each take a turn, Sam," Merry says. "Strider needs the most rest; he's carrying Frodo."

"No, we'll put him on the pony," I decide. "We can each carry a little more of our supplies."

They nod, faces weary but determined, and we retire. No complaints or grumbling in a serious situation.

From that day, all four of us take turns watching whenever we stop to rest. But I push us toward Rivendell as quickly as possible, through rain and even snow.

The hobbits are quieter, and I find I miss their joking and grumbling as we walk. All three cluster around Frodo whenever the road allows it, reaching out and touching him as if to comfort him. Or perhaps to comfort themselves.

Although I am leading them, I find myself staying close to Frodo as well. Surely I do not need reassurance from a hobbit. But I walk beside Bill, as Sam has named him. Frodo is barely able to cling to the pony's broad back, slumping and slipping into fever dreams more frequently with each mile that passes. Finally, fearing he will fall, I tie his hands around Bill's neck with a strip of cloth from my cloak.

When we halt that evening, Sam rubs Frodo's wrists, but he doesn't reproach me. And the next morning, he binds Frodo to Bill himself, whispering to the pony to take care of Mr. Frodo, and carefully making sure Frodo's wrists aren't being hurt.

***

"Is he going to die?" Pippin sounds close to tears, and I grit my teeth but cannot immediately answer him.

They have never faced death, never seen comrades mown down. I am a warrior; I know we are never guaranteed another sunrise. I am too well acquainted with loss, but these hobbits are soft and untested. The fear and sorrow in their faces cuts into me.

"He's passing into the shadow world. He'll soon become a wraith like them." And I am close to despair. I see the struggle Frodo is still making against the deadly poison in his small body. I have heard of doughty men, and even elves, who lost their struggle with the darkness in fewer days. Every minute Frodo fights convinces me more that he is the only one in Middle Earth who can bear the evil one's Ring successfully. And every minute we remain so far from Rivendell I fear we will lose him forever.

"Sam, do you know the athelas plant?"

***

Like an answer to my plea, Arwen is here with a horse. She will take Frodo to Elrond swiftly. I quickly treat his wound with the athelas and carry him to her mount. A few words and she is gone, and I am left to face the worried hobbits' wrath.

"Those wraiths are still out there!" Sam shouts.

I kneel and attempt to explain to them. "She is our only hope to save him, Sam. Asfaloth is swift, an elf horse trained to be fearless in the face of the black riders. They are well able to outrun the Nazgul's steeds." They are still full of questions, but I have exhausted my store of comfort. "We should rest for a few hours, then press on to catch up with Frodo. Hopefully by the time we reach Rivendell, he will be healing."

My words are more cheerful than I truly feel, and I sense Sam's doubt as he studies my face. But he merely nods and they busy themselves with a quick meal, cheese and fruit, then pipes and silence. Before dawn we are on our road again, packs lightened now that Bill can carry baggage again. We will make good time, I hope, and remain free from pursuit.

But I fear for Arwen and Frodo, and doubt my wisdom in sending her alone.

It is near noon when I hear hoofs and quickly push the hobbits into the brush, drawing my sword. But it is Galador and Hasir from the house of Elrond, mounted and leading a horse.

"Aragorn! We have found you." The hobbits are almost as joyful at the meeting as I am, since we now can be at Rivendell by dark. Merry rides with Galador, Pippin with Hasir, and Sam rides before me, holding Bill's lead. We move as swiftly as possible to the Ford.

They have no news of Frodo, save that the Riders were swept into a flood of the Bruinen and have left this area. Elrond will be working to heal Frodo, and I know that he is skilled. Still, it takes all my will to refrain from galloping to Rivendell at full speed, despite the risk to horse and hobbit.

***

"Strider." Frodo's pale face and the dark circles under his eyes are painful, but his smile is bright. Sam sits beside him, still holding his left hand, with Merry and Pippin clustered at the foot of the ridiculously large -- for a hobbit -- bed. Bilbo is in the rocker, beaming at us all.

"I'm very pleased to see you healing, Frodo," I manage to say, and I'm rewarded by smiles from all four hobbits. The Ring hangs around Frodo's small throat, glinting against his pale skin, yet he seems untroubled by it.

"Thank you for taking such good care of me -- of all of us -- during our journey here. We could not have survived without you." He reaches his right hand to me, and I take it briefly, then gently return it to the coverlet.

"It was an honor to be able to assist you in your quest, Frodo." I smile at them all. "It is good for me to have spent time with you, and learn the ways of hobbits other than Bilbo." Bilbo snorts, but I continue. "I only wish more of my people could know the courage of the Shire folk."

Now all of them seem confused, a little embarrassed too, as Frodo's ear tips are pink. I stand for a moment in near-silence, hearing only the birds and the musical waters surrounding Rivendell. When I approached Frodo's room, their chatter and laughter were echoing in the halls. It is apparent that they are still uncomfortable with me. I am not a friend.

"I will leave you to rest, Master Baggins. Good day to you all." With an inclination of my head to Bilbo, I leave the room, heartsore despite my joy at seeing Frodo healed.

The Nazgul are gone; we tracked along the river many miles searching for signs of them. Frodo is safe here, as is the Ring, temporarily. I am with my beloved Arwen, in the only place I have ever called home.

Yet the softness of the hobbits has infected me, for all I feel is sorrow and loss. My time with Frodo is over.

 

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