52. A Riddle-Game and Its Answer
The walking party continued at a leisurely pace that allowed for side-trips to investigate meandering streams (foraging for cattails), dark mossy tree-boles (hoping for mushrooms) and several of the small cliff overhangs (satisfying general hobbity curiosity) that they passed. The knowledge that they were nearing their goal and the inclusion of Legolas in their party both reassured and delighted the hobbits. The beautiful sunny day helped, too, and Aragorn found his own heart lifting from the dark thoughts of the previous days that had troubled him.
The Ranger kept a clandestine eye upon the hobbits as he surveyed the surrounding countryside. For the last mile or so, the hobbits had ceased their explorations and walked close, curly heads together in rapt, soft-voiced conversation. Aragorn was immediately on his guard. He had been keeping a surreptitious eye on the Ring-bearer but Frodo seemed fully recovered from the blow to his head. Hard-headed, these halflings, he mused. In many ways. A quick movement caught his attention. As Pippin had done the previous day, Aragorn looked down to see the Ring-bearer suddenly quicken his steps and pull up at his side, flashing him a dazzling smile. Aragorn eyed him with suspicion, thinking how much the eldest and youngest cousins resembled each other when they wanted something.
“All right,” growled the Ranger amiably, “what is it?”
Frodo did not try to dissemble. “You wish me to drink those disgusting tonics of Lord Elrond’s, don’t you, Aragorn?”
“It would be nice to see you comply with my lord’s wishes without the dramatics, yes,” Aragorn responded.
Frodo graciously let that pass. He caught up a flower and studied it idly. “Then I have a proposal for you.”
Feeling that he might well regret this, Aragorn cautiously replied, “What?”
“Nothing too difficult, Aragorn.” Frodo twirled the flower in his fingers then tucked it gently into the buttonhole of his breast pocket. “I will take Lord Elrond’s foul, sickening, nauseating –“
“I understand you dislike the medicine, Frodo.”
“Even so, I will take it from now on without complaint if you will play a riddle-game with us. A game of my choosing.”
Aragorn mulled this over, pretending to be unaware of the eager eyes drilling into his back. He glanced back to meet Legolas’ amused gaze – elvish ears had carried their soft conversation to him perfectly. The Elf’s earlier comment about rocks in his bedroll and poison ivy stuffed into his clothing passed through the Ranger’s mind. Had the hobbits’ cattail gathering also harvested a captured frog or two to slip into his boots when opportunity permitted? Even now such could be tucked away in hobbity pocket, awaiting an opportunity. He would not put it past them. “Of your choosing…” he mused. “I wonder what riddle you could possibly be thinking of.”
Frodo said nothing but he grinned and his brilliant eyes shone up at the Man.
“You will take the tonic without complaint if I play a riddle-game with you…” the Ranger repeated carefully. Frodo nodded enthusiastically in agreement. “So I have only to play the game to win it? Well, then, why should I not?”
Frodo’s mouth dropped open and he sputtered. “No! No, I meant –“ Beside him, Merry was visibly biting his tongue, and Sam looked confused. Pippin stared intently at him, then his forehead suddenly smoothed out and his mouth formed a little unheard oh.
Aragorn decided to take pity on the hobbit. He would not learn what the four were up to, else. “Nay, I know you meant play and win, Frodo.” He was secretly delighted to see Frodo flush. It was unusual to see the erudite hobbit misspeak and that he had done so showed how very eager he was to play this game. The Ring-bearer had been entirely too somber these past several days; a bit of fun would do him good. “Very well. A game of your choosing, but played by my rules.”
Now Frodo looked wary. The other hobbits edged up, all pretense of not listening intently to their conversation abandoned. Legolas looked like he was struggling not to laugh.
“What rules would you set?”
“You wish to know what lies at the end of our journey.” The hobbits glanced among themselves, ending any charade that this had not been discussed among them beforehand. “Very well. You may each ask one, and only one question. I will give one reply to each question. You may not press for clarifications or further explanations. And you may not first discuss your questions amongst yourselves. Do you agree?”
Merry caught Frodo’s eye and nodded. Pippin nodded more slowly, while Sam looked unhappy. But Frodo wasn’t finished. “If we agree to your terms, and so win by guessing this … marvel … what is our prize?”
Aragorn thought about that and sighed. “If you guess… Legolas and I will supply all of the food on the way back – as much as you can eat.” An instant later he regretted that addendum, for Frodo’s eyes lit up and the other hobbits practically glowed. Aragorn groaned internally. How could he have been so stupid as to offer hobbits as much food as they could eat? While stuffing himself would doubtless do Frodo good, Merry and Sam were bottomless pits and Aragorn feared to let Pippin’s insatiable appetite even enter his thoughts. There was no help for it – he could not allow them to win this riddle-game.
“Is this agreeable to you, Legolas?” Frodo asked, repeating the terms carefully to ensure that he had the Elf’s acceptance of the bargain. No doubt Frodo already had plans for the Elf’s deadly bow, Aragorn thought. They had passed many signs of large game that the hobbits could not easily bring down with their small slings. Legolas raised an amused eyebrow, also well aware of the Ring-bearer’s maneuverings. He said nothing but inclined his head slightly.
“A deal, struck!“ proclaimed the Ranger with a grin. “The first question is Pippin’s, then.”
Pippin was so startled he almost stumbled – as the youngest, he had not expected to go first. Merry jerked his chin at his cousin and the tweenager inched up hesitantly to join Frodo and Aragorn as they walked.
“What is your question, Pippin?”
Pippin gulped – he had not had time to prepare. “Er … um…” Aragorn waited patiently, his cousins and Sam not so patiently. “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” the young one asked desperately, then flushed with embarrassment.
“A good question, Pippin.” Pippin looked encouraged, his green-gold eyes fastened on the Ranger’s face. Aragorn made a great show of considering his reply. “The answer is yes.” Pippin broke into a broad smile. But the Man wasn’t finished. “And no. And sometimes it isn’t there at all.” Pippin choked, swallowing back the additional questions that leaped to his lips.
Now Sam came forward and walked with them instead of rambling behind. Aragorn had spent enough time with the stocky gardener to know that underneath that mild round face lurked a quick and practical mind. Sam might not have the cousins’ gentle-born education or social graces, but he possessed an abundance of ‘good hobbit-sense’ and Aragorn sometimes thought he valued that the more.
“Is it alive?”
The Ranger was silent for so long that even Legolas seemed about to make a comment. At last Aragorn said, “Define ‘alive.’”
It was Sam’s turn to look started. “Well,” he began hesitantly, “does it move about? Does it –“
“Enough,” said Aragorn crisply. “I will answer only the question defined. Yes, it moves. But it is not alive.”
“You mean it’s dead, then?” asked Sam. “But –“
“You have had your question, Samwise. Merry?”
Merry had been watching and listening silently and Aragorn could almost see the thoughts flowing through that quicksilver mind. When the young hobbit spoke, his words were slow and considered. “You have said repeatedly that we must be in a certain place at a certain time to see this … thing. Why is that?”
Ah, he would have to be careful of his answer. Merry had consistently shown himself to possess the quickest mind of the hobbits and Aragorn would not underestimate him. “It moves and exists only twice a day, a few hours after dawn and at dusk, as the world wakes and yawns and stretches, and as the cycle repeats itself at dusk, preparing the world for sleep.” ‘There, young sir, chew on that!’
Now it was Frodo’s turn, and Aragorn did not drop his guard. Frodo was extremely intelligent and well-read, more introspective than Merry perhaps but also a logical thinker. “Frodo?”
The Ring-bearer was silent for long moments and Aragorn wondered if he were contemplating the price of failure. The distasteful expression on his features certainly suggested it. Frodo swallowed. Then he said, “May I have a little time to consider your answers?”
Legolas met Aragorn’s eyes over Frodo’s head then those clear eyes grew unfocused and his head tilted to the side, pointed ears attentive. The Elf shook his head slightly. Aragorn nodded to show he understood. “That was not agreed upon. The questions have been asked and the answers given, except for yours. You must give your question now.”
“Why?” asked Frodo, frustration and a certain panic evident in his tone. “What difference would it make?”
“Is that your question, Frodo?”
“No!” The hobbit inhaled and closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them to glare up at the Ranger. “No, it isn’t. Very well, if you will not be reasonable…” he paused but Aragorn only continued to regard the hobbit levelly. “All right! My question is this: Does it make a sound andifso, whatisit?”
Aragorn laughed. “I do not think that is one question, Frodo, despite your attempt to make it so. Yes, it makes a sound. And the sound is this.” Aragorn stopped walking and turned back to face them. Legolas had been staring into the distance past them, a faint frown on his face that was replaced by an enigmatic smile as the Ranger brought them to a halt. Aragorn leaned down so that his face was level with Frodo’s and looked into the halfling’s eyes. Then he inhaled deeply, opened his mouth and howled, “RRRRRuuummmmmmMMMMHHaaaHHHH!” The Ranger’s voice had been rising throughout and the last was delivered in an ear-splitting roar.
Pippin blanched and staggered back a step, eyes widening. Merry wordlessly halted him by grabbing his coat sleeve, brow furrowed as his blue eyes bored into the Man’s. All of the hobbits stared at him as if he had taken leave of his senses. Well satisfied with these reactions to his answer, Aragorn smiled at them blandly. “What is your answer to the riddle, Frodo?”
Frodo’s dark brows drew together and he looked at his companions desperately, as if they could somehow place the answer in his mind. Sam and Merry and Pippin stared back. Merry spread his hands and shrugged. “Frodo,” Aragorn pressed. The hobbit looked trapped. “Frodo, do you forfeit?”
“I forfeit,” the hobbit gritted out through clenched teeth. “You win, Aragorn. I forfeit.”
Aragorn threw back his head and laughed, echoed by Legolas. “Remember, the riddle-game was your suggestion! And your forfeit will be to your advantage, really, as Elrond’s tonics will do you nothing but good.” Frodo did not look mollified, glaring at him furiously.
“You may take the next dose at our destination, Frodo. And in honor of our arrival, Legolas and I will provide the next meal. Come – we are almost there.”
The hobbits trailed after the Man, heads close together in intense discussion. Legolas moved from the rearguard position to join the Ranger. “That was close, my friend. Did they have an Elf’s hearing, your riddle-game would be lost.”
“And you and I would be obligated to feed four hobbits who have suffered short rations for several days, my friend. You have not had to supply these little folk with food, as I did from Bree to Rivendell. I fear we will be hunting for them constantly on our Quest.” Aragorn smiled and picked up the pace a little. “Their hearing is exceptional – better than men’s. But they have nothing like this in their gentle land of the Shire. Even did they hear, they would not know what to make of the sound.”
Legolas shrugged gracefully. “They might take issue of your last clue, though.”
Aragorn glanced at the Elf in amusement. “Could you have imitated the sound better?”
“Actually … no.”
“Then do not criticize. I did the best a man could.”
The six walked on in relative silence for some time, enjoying the peace of Imladris. The ground was becoming both rougher and steeper, the gentle grass giving way to loose soil and shale that slid underfoot. The increasingly rocky earth began to slope uphill, and the walkers were forced to lean forward, climbing with their packs near to overbalancing them. Aragorn kept watch on the sun’s position in the sky, and urged them to speed their steps.
“Here?” he asked Legolas when the six had crested the steep hill.
“It is a good place,” agreed the Elf. “Much closer would be dangerous.”
To the hobbits’ amazement, Aragorn shrugged off his pack and dropped beside it. Legolas was already on the ground, seated comfortably cross-legged with his long hands on his knees. The hobbits glanced amongst themselves then sank to the earth, leaning against their packs or each other as was convenient.
Four pairs of eyes stared at the blank plain before their eyes. The ground sloped down again, more gently on this side, to a featureless vista that seemed to hold little to commend it. A few straggly trees grew here and there, oddly misshapen and twisted. The hobbits examined the desolate area with confusion, then turned to the two Big People with expressions that asked, “Well?” far more eloquently than words.
“Patience,” the Ranger counseled them.
Then Legolas raised his head and Aragorn knew that the Elf’s superior hearing had warned him. Unable to resist the impulse to tease them one last time, he swiveled back to the hobbits and said, “Hush! It comes.”
Merry bit his lip, his brow furrowed as he sought for movement among the little mounds of earth and small stones that were the only items of interest on the barren ground. Then he became aware of a trembling under his hands … the merest vibration of the earth. Merry placed his palms flat against the cool earth and tried to understand what he was feeling.
Catching his sudden concentration, Merry’s cousins and Sam imitated his tense posture, hands pressed flat to the earth. In the brief seconds that had passed, the vibration had grown. Sam shifted nervously as the quivering sensation crept up his backbone. They could hear it now, too. A wordless, rumbling roar, the sound of great waters being condensed and pushed and funneled…
“An underground river,” whispered Merry. “A huge one, by the sound of it. But what -”
“Patience,” the Ranger repeated. Merry fell silent and turned his attention to the increasing movement under him. Tiny stones and bits of earth were beginning to shake and rattle, working loose from their places to slide to lower ground in tiny cascades of earth. The hobbits crept closer to each other, not liking the untrustworthiness of the formerly dependable ground.
The explosion, when it came, was so violent that the hobbits were almost flattened backwards to the earth. Had they been standing, they would have been knocked from their feet. Their cries of surprise and terror were lost in a roaring canopy of enveloping sound as a massive jet of water burst from a small hole in the rocky ground and was funneled upwards into the sky. Aragorn was shouting something, a reassurance perhaps, but they could not hear him. Legolas had sensibly clamped his hands over his ears.
The waters rose and rose in a single massive column, throwing out great plumes of white-laced water as it grew. The pillar flattened and spread out at the crown, fountaining off to fall to the earth again with crashes that made the ground shudder. Though they were far from it, cold mist kissed their faces and dewed their eyes till the sight shimmered before them and forced them to rub away the clinging drops.
At last the great column reached its zenith, thundering into the sky, appearing to near-touch the base of the clouds. Almost immediately upon gaining its height it began to sink, the column narrowing, the deafening roar decreasing. It continued its reduction until there was nothing to be seen but a little fountain no taller than a man, then a hobbit and then it was gone. Little rivulets of water swept down from the hole and were absorbed back into the earth.
“Oh,” murmured one of the hobbits. Aragorn could not tell which one, for his ears had not quite recovered. He had truly forgotten how loud the geyser was. Turning in place to see their faces, he knew that he had been forgiven his teasing. The halflings sat transfixed, mesmerized, their eyes round with wonder.
With a visible effort, Frodo shut his mouth. Pippin had both arms wrapped around Merry and was staring at the spot where the thing had appeared and then disappeared, dumbfounded. Sam coughed nervously. Merry finally spoke for them all. “What was that?”
“It is a geyser, my friends,” Aragorn told them gently, understanding of their fear and awe. “The underground river pools in fissures and fractures deep in the earth and waits there, compressed by rock and heat. Twice a day the pressure and high temperature of the deep earth becomes too much, and the steaming waters seek an outlet. It has been here, erupting faithfully, since before the ending of the Second Age.”
Frodo swallowed, eyes still fastened to the little mound of earth that had birthed the geyser and then taken it back. “I understand the answer to the riddle-game now, Aragorn. I have read of such things in Bilbo’s books. I never dreamed that I would see…” The Ranger watched as the Ring-bearer sought for words. Pippin and Sam still stared, stupefied, while Merry’s brow was furrowed again. No doubt pondering how the power of the great water could be harnessed to serve some need of his folk, Aragorn thought.
“May we stay and see it again this eve?” whispered Pippin.
Aragorn nodded. “A day of rest would be welcome. We will watch again tonight and start for home in the morning.” He laughed then, delight shining from his eyes at their astonishment and amazement. Nothing less than a true spectacle would render them so silent and still and it pleased him that he had brought them such pleasure. Legolas slanted his eyes over at his old friend, amusement sparkling in his gaze.
“Thank you for bringing us here, Aragorn,” Frodo murmured. His voice dropped almost too low to be heard. “What a wondrous place is Middle-earth.”
* 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.