25. An Old Hobbit’s Wisdom
Bilbo stayed with them after lunch instead of departing for his usual afternoon nap, his brown eyes introspective as he watched his nephew rubbing his shoulder and Sam favoring his arm. Shaking his head and muttering under his breath, the old hobbit trailed after them as Frodo and Sam dragged themselves to their feet to meet Legolas and Glorfindel at the practice-ground for their first knife-fighting lesson.
The Elves had arrived before them and upon a cloth on the ground was spread a variety of sharp-bladed knives, ranging from stilettos to leaf-bladed daggers. There was even a small bodice-dagger, made to fit discretely into a lady’s undergarment that Legolas had obtained from somewhere. (Bilbo reminded himself to ask the Wood-elf about that later.) Looking over the glittering display, the old hobbit understood that Legolas and Glorfindel had collected many knives in the hopes that one or two would suit. Frodo and Samwise looked at the array silently, but Bilbo saw apprehension dawn in their eyes.
Lord Elrond was also present, sitting at his ease on a small folding chair and sorting through a medical kit, several rolls of bandages at his feet. Bilbo exchanged a smile with his old friend and went to join him, lowering himself stiffly at the Elf-lord’s side. Bilbo observed that Frodo’s naturally fair complexion went a shade paler as he took in the needles and stitching-thread that Elrond held in preparation.
“Ready, then?” Glorfindel smiled to relax the two, but Frodo and Sam did not seem reassured. “First, let me explain the basics to you. If you must defend yourself with a knife, the goal is not to kill your opponent but to cripple him so that you may make your escape.” The Elf selected a long knife from the cloth and held it before him, low and centered before his body. One foot behind him in almost a fencer’s stance, he demonstrated the proper moves, shifting with a grace to which the hobbits could not aspire. Then the two hobbits each chose a knife and sought to imitate him.
“No, Sam. Turn the blade so that it enters the body horizontally. A vertical thrust might result in the blade catching on your enemy’s ribs, possibly grounding the knife and preventing its removal.” Sam tried again, a quick thrust-and-withdraw with the blade flat. Glorfindel nodded his approval. “Good. Now keep that up, remembering to extend your arm and keep your body out of reach.”
Frodo was doing well under Legolas’ tutelage. The Ring-bearer quickly grasped his instructions and instinctively understood the steps that kept a knife-fight such a blur of motion. Close kin to a dance, such a fight required attributes that Frodo already possessed; speed, sure-footedness, the ability to think quickly and bravery.
Yet all, including the two trainees, could see that it would ever be an unequal contest. Though both Frodo and Sam learned rapidly, their speed and natural agility could not compensate for their short reaches. What good quickness if they could not get within scoring distance?
Their instructors saw it also. Legolas shook his head, perspiration barely dampening his fair face. “You folk must not seek to close with an enemy. A quick strike and escape is your only hope. If followed, strike again and again. Perhaps blood-loss will weaken your opponent.”
“This isn’t working, Elrond,” Bilbo said quietly over the thuds and pants of the dueling pairs. The Elves were very careful of their small students, their attention ever on keeping the sharp blades away from unprotected flesh. Watching them, the old hobbit shook his grey head as Sam slipped, his hairy toes digging into the soft earth for balance. Glorfindel caught his arm and steadied him, and both took a moment to regain their breath. “Hobbits aren’t warriors. We never were.”
“Yet what else can we do, old friend? Those young ones must survive this Quest, if Middle-earth is not to be given over into darkness.” The Elf-lord’s dark eyes were strained as he followed the action before him. Both watchers’ eyes were drawn to Sam as the hobbit took a short cut along the hand, gasping as the red line spread and began to drip. Glorfindel instantly lowered his knife and clasped his hand around the small wound, applying pressure while Sam gritted his teeth.
Bilbo was silent for a moment, seeking to voice the thoughts that had been growing in his mind. “Frodo must depend on you Big Folk to defend him. I agree that there are things my lad must learn, but not this, Elrond, not killing…”
The Elf-lord’s deep eyes moved to the old hobbit. “And would you have them unable to defend themselves?”
Bilbo bridled slightly. “Hobbits aren’t defenseless, Elrond. We’ve taken care of ourselves for a long time. But this way of fighting … it isn’t our way. Let Frodo and the Sam show you our way of fighting.”
Elrond’s dark brows raised. “Very well, my friend. Proceed.”
“That’s enough, lads!” Bilbo struggled to his feet, his call halting the practice. The two Elves looked to him, as did the hobbits. Sam shook his hand, the small cut stinging but of little consequence.
“Frodo, my lad, I was just telling Elrond about our ways. Sam, would you please run back to Frodo’s rooms and fetch your slings?” Sam did, a grin sparkling in his grey eyes as he returned. Wordlessly, he handed Frodo’s to him and ran his hands over the familiar wood of his.
“Slings are very practical, Elrond,” Bilbo continued. “Arrows break, warp, get lost and have to be made. Stones are everywhere. Not that we really need slings… Show him, Sam-lad.”
“See that little rock over there, sir? The one broken in half? Will the left side suit?”
“Admirably, Sam. Fire away.”
In an amazingly quick movement, Sam stooped and selected a stone. A small shower of dust erupted from the left side of the halved stone as a ping rang out at the same moment.
Bilbo nodded, satisfied. “Now you, Frodo. Take that hanging branch off that tree there.”
Elrond followed the old hobbit’s pointing finger. “Bilbo, that is too far. You would need an arrow -”
With a sharp crack! the broken branch swung violently and dropped to the earth. The Elves had not even seen the stone fly. Frodo smiled and lowered the sling.
“A small, sharp stone thrown with such force can be a weapon in itself,” Bilbo continued in a lecturing tone to the astonished Elves. “If any hobbit stoops for a stone, it is well to get quickly under cover, as all trespassing beasts know very well. We may not be as enamored of weapons of war as Men – and Elves – are, but hobbits can take care of themselves. We have had to fight to maintain ourselves in a hard world,” the old hobbit continued in a softer voice, “but no hobbit will seek out battle.”
Bilbo reached out and took the long knife from Frodo’s grasp, the younger hobbit surrendering it to him carefully. Bilbo turned it over in his hands, his old eyes sorrowful. “We’ve never sought glory in war or dominion over others. The green fields are enough for us, the warm sun … the smell of pipe-weed drifting on the evening breeze.” Bilbo raised his eyes to the Elf-lord’s, tears suddenly brimming in those earth-brown orbs. “All the things that we are not, you are trying to force these lads to be. Let them be hobbits, Elrond. It is what will carry them through this Quest.”
The immortal Elf-lord looked down at the small figures before him. Glorfindel and Legolas were silent. Frodo raised his eyes to the dark eyes of Elrond, and what he saw there made the Elf-lord nod slowly. “You are right, old friend,” the Elf-lord said softly. “From now on they will learn survival skills, no longer the giving of death. Let us hope that it will be enough.”
* * * * *
Far to the north, Aragorn struggled to wind the floating fabric around his hands, the cloak fighting him, still caught by the snags and swift current of the river. With a jerk, he freed the cloak and it lifted in his hands, attached to nothing. Behind him, Elladan choked back an explosive cry of relief.
The Ranger carried the dripping cloak to shore and the Elf took it from his hands and shook it out. “Too small to be Elrohir’s…” Aragorn said. “This must be Merry’s, the one he lost in the river when he tried to trap those fish. We can return it to him, at least.”
“But not in any condition he might want,” Elladan commented and raised the cloak up for his foster brother to see. Long slashes rent the thick wool, almost shredding the fabric in places.
Aragorn pushed his hand through one and gathered the edges, puzzled by the damage. “Even catching on the rocks would not cause this. These slashes look like they were made by a knife… Look, here and here – surely these are knife-thrusts.” The Ranger’s eyes returned to the churned earth on the bank. “This cloak was slashed to ribbons, then thrown back into the water. Why?”
Backing up, Aragorn carefully placed his feet in the prints he had made entering the water. Elladan squeezed out of the cloak and bundled it behind his steed’s saddle, then remounted to remove himself from the Ranger’s area of work. The stallion’s hindquarters bunched as icy droplets of water streamed down the sleek hide, then relaxed under the Elf’s gentle hands and murmured voice.
Aragorn turned at the edge of the churned ground and crouched, balancing himself on his fingertips as he leaned over the hoof-marks and tracks of booted feet. For a long time he studied the soft earth, occasionally reaching out to move a stone or lay a palm into one of the indentations. Elladan was silent, knowing from long experience not to interrupt or distract him.
At last the Ranger straightened, sighing as he rubbed the small of his back. Elladan could remain quiet no longer. “Well?” he asked, his clear voice reflecting the tension evident in his stiff, unyielding form.
“Not Elrohir,” Aragorn replied softly. “His trail must have taken a turn further back. This rider…” His fingers traced the outline of hoof-print, the imprint of a furrier’s nail. The nail did not anchor the horseshoe to the hoof, but had been driven from the side of the hoof through the animal’s flesh into the shoe.
“What?” Elladan pressed, when his foster brother fell silent.
“Only eight were found,” the Ranger continued softly, as if speaking to himself. “The water did not give up the ninth.”
“The ninth what?” Elladan pressed again, an edge of impatience in his voice.
“Black Rider,” Aragorn said, his words soft and strained. “This was a Nazgûl’s mount.”
* TBC *
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.