Work Header

Crossing Paths in the Dark

Work Text:

Disclaimer: I don't own The Lord of the Rings trilogy, nor The Hobbit; they are owned by J. R. R. Tolkien (or whoever owns them, since the man is now rolling over in his grave). Nor do I own the films, which belong to Peter Jackson. I just own the little plot for this one-shot.

July 15th, TA 2994

It was a cloudless spring day and the sun shone down benevolently on the Shire, giving warmth to all creatures that lived under its yellow light. The perfect day for mushroom-picking, mused Frodo Baggins. He was 26 years old, still under the majority of 33, but ever since his cousin (but he called him "uncle" because of the huge gap in age between them) Bilbo Baggins had taken him in and made him his heir five years ago from Brandybuck Hall, he was allowed to go into the forest surrounding Hobbiton anytime that he liked, so long as he informed Bilbo first and gave him an appropriate I'll-be-back-by time.

So, Frodo strode happily into the woods, on the hunt for some tasty mushrooms to cook for dinner that night for Bilbo, who was sick at the time and needed nutrient-rich foods. It wasn't long before he found some amazing-smelling orange ones growing in the shade of a tall, sturdy tree next to a clear, burbling brook. Frodo quickly uprooted a few and washed them in the nearby brook, but he didn't realize one thing: that this particular type of mushroom, when combined with the water that ran through the Shire, released a somniferous gas into the air. This gas made any creature who breathed it in sleep-walk for a time before finally collapsing into a deep sleep that lasted for many hours. Its effects could be fatal if the inhaler of the gas happened to be by a cliff or by some river rapids. Thankfully, this type of mushroom was rare in this particular region and had almost never been found by a hobbit before; in fact, it was so rare here, that the Hobbits had forgotten not to pick that type of mushroom, and so Frodo unknowingly harvested them and, of course, he inhaled the soporific in the gas, which was detectable by its queer scent.

Suddenly disoriented and very sleepy, the young Hobbit stood up unsteadily and walked off, leaving the mushrooms to rot in the brook as he stumbled away. Frodo didn't pay his surroundings any mind at all as he kept sleep-walking through the forest, half-tripping over roots and low-hanging branches scratching at his skin and tearing his clothes. The further he walked, the more wild the forest became.

At last, the drug in his system took complete effect and Frodo's knees buckled, his at-the-present limited consciousness wilted and he submitted to the irresistible siren call of slumber, collapsing on the spot a great distance away from Hobbiton, limbs exhausted and sky-blue dazed eyes slipping closed after the long walk. As he slept, the sun reached its zenith and passed it, then set below the horizon.

Night fell. Clouds had moved in from the north, smothering the clear white light of the waxing gibbous moon. And still Frodo slept, until about midnight, when a noise woke him from his deep torpor. He gasped and his eyes flew open, glancing around confusedly when he saw that it was dark and that he didn't recognize his surroundings. Panic set in. Frodo sat up, rubbing the aches and the cold out of his stiff arm and leg muscles, wondering how on Middle Earth he'd managed to get here, where the trees looked so menacing in the gloom.

A noise, the same one that had woken him up, startled Frodo into standing. It was the sound of heavy footsteps - well, heavy compared to those of Hobbits. Frodo tensed, but ultimately, he followed the sound of the footsteps, deciding to satisfy his morbid curiosity and maybe get directions back to Hobbiton.

Estel, or, as he was known in small towns such as Bree, Strider, trudged through the undergrowth sleepily. He'd yet to find a suitable area for setting down his bedroll; this part of the forest was absolutely crawling with not-seen-anywhere-else flora that was rumored to cause many strange ailments to Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits alike.

He froze when he heard a twig snap behind him and a breathy gasp right after it. The woods went suddenly quiet and the ragged breathing behind him seemed to echo around the forest. For one long moment, everything stood still. And then Estel leaped into action. He pivoted, dropping his bedroll and pack of supplies, and had his sword drawn and on the neck of the stalker in a mere two seconds. The Ranger was shocked to see that he had his sword pressed against the neck of... a Hobbit?

Frodo had been following the large Man for a bit of time now; after happening upon him passing by, he'd been too scared to approach him and ask for help, but he couldn't pass up on an opportunity such as this one, so he'd tried to follow the Man back to civilization. However, he hadn't been watching where he was going, still a bit muddled from the drug, so one of his large, hairy Hobbit feet stepped on a dry twig and the ensuing snap seemed to reverberate throughout the forest. He froze and gasped; seeing the Man copy his actions up ahead, Frodo knew that he'd heard. For one long moment, only his heavy, scared breathing could be heard, and then the Man moved so fast that Frodo wasn't even sure what happened exactly, but it ended with the strange Man wielding a sword almost taller than him at his vulnerable throat. A beam of moonlight helpfully lit the scene as the moon peeked out from the thick clouds overhead to watch the tense encounter.

The young Hobbit stiffened and gaped at the Man looming over him; he had dark, scraggly hair and unkempt-looking bristle decorating his jaw and his clothes were dirty but smelled of the forest around them. A knife and a longer dagger were hooked into his haphazard belt. The Man looked just as surprised as him to see Frodo, but the Hobbit regained his senses before the Man could do the same as he realized that his back wasn't pressed to anything and that he could easily inch away from the sharp weapon and run. And so, he did, ignoring the desperate calls of the Man to come back.

Estel stared down at the Hobbit, taking in his appearance. He had curly, reddish-brown hair, the bluest eyes the Man had ever seen in a mortal and was wearing simple clothes. He looked like he'd traveled a long away, and he must've, if the absence of any Hobbit civilization in the area was anything to go by. What was he doing here, so far north?

Without warning, the Hobbit wrenched himself backwards, turned and ran, so fast that Estel could only yell, "Wait! Come back! I don't mean any harm," before the Hobbit was out of sight. Cursing himself, Estel ran after him.

Frodo sprinted as fast as he could, desperate to get away from the mass of Man and weapon he'd just encountered. He heard sounds of pursuit and pushed himself further, pushing branches and bushes alike aside as he ran full-tilt through the thick forest. So, it was no surprise that at that great of a speed, a protruding root tripped Frodo and he went sprawling onto the ground, striking his head painfully against a conveniently-placed rock lying nearby on the way down. His last thought before he fell unconscious was that this would be how he died; stabbed by a strange Man in the dark while he had tripped over a damned root.

Estel stooped down and scooped the lightweight Hobbit into his arms, examining the head wound that was bleeding sluggishly. He frowned concernedly and headed back to where he'd dropped his things, deciding that he'd set up camp there and look after the halfling, who obviously needed his help. And maybe, he'd discover just why and how the Hobbit had gotten so far north, far from any of his kind.

He got a small fire going and cleansed a cloth in water from his canteen before cleaning the injury carefully, watching the young face tentatively for any reaction. There was none. Worried, Estel checked the pulse and breathing of the Hobbit, but they were steady. Must have been the head trauma and apparent exhaustion, if his ratty clothes were anything to go by regarding how far he'd traveled on foot.

The Ranger heated up some leftover rabbit stew from the previous night in a pot over the fire and spread a dirty, albeit warm, blanket over the Hobbit. Stirring the contents of the pot, he brooded over the many questions the sudden appearance of the halfling had raised. Why was he following me? Estel wondered to himself.

As if somehow hearing his question and wanting to answer it himself, the Hobbit groaned and shifted.

Frodo's eyes cracked open, peering at the crackling fire in a dazed yet curious way, but his pupils narrowed in focus on the Man next to him and he shot up, already preparing to get up and run.

"No, no," exclaimed Estel as grabbed the Hobbit's arm to prevent him from escaping into the dark night.

Frodo froze, then gasped, "Let me go!" wide blue eyes trained on the strong hand gripping his wrist, and he flailed and struggled, panicking when the Ranger just tightened his grip and pulled him close to hug his arms to his side and hold his legs together in a scissor grip so that he couldn't kick and hurt Estel or himself.

His back to the large Man's chest and trapped in his lap, Frodo sobbed quietly in Estel's arms, shoulders curling up and inwards and chin tucked in for some small measure of comfort in this situation that would end in either death, a lot of pain, or both. Frodo was no fool. He knew of the dangers of Men, who were known in the Shire to be rough and cruel with beings physically weaker than themselves. Even worse, was their reputation for forcing themselves in acts of dominance onto said weaker beings. Even now, Frodo could feel the Man's hardness pressing against him and he shuddered despairingly, eyes squeezed shut and prepared for the worse.

Estel could feel the sheer frailty of the body restrained by him in his lap and those hauntingly beautiful blue eyes returned to him in a memory and he felt himself go hard. However, upon feeling Frodo shiver, he realized that the poor halfling was sobbing his heart out and he tried to control himself.

"There, there, it's alright," he soothed, but the Hobbit was having none of it. Frodo jerked away when he tried to ruffle the halfling's hair to calm him down.

"P-Please," Frodo begged, "don't hurt me. I'll l-leave a-and never come back! I-I'll never breathe a word. Just, I beg of you, please let me go!"

Estel stared down at him, shocked because that was the most that he'd heard the Hobbit speak at once since he'd met him and because it scared him how desperate he sounded. Frodo's body shook like a small leaf in a strong breeze and he curled into himself even more at the lack of a response, sobbing going up an octave from distress.

"I-I'll do anything," Frodo offered. "Even... s-service you if that's what you desire. P-Please, I need to get back to my uncle! He's sick a-and needs me to look after him!"

Now Estel was appalled. Service him? Did he mean...? No! Where on Middle Earth would the Hobbit even get such an idea? Estel groaned to himself, worried that Frodo had had a distinctly unpleasant encounter with a Man (or Men!) before.

Frodo gradually stopped sobbing and took the groan as an affirmative to his offer, despite whatever desperation had fueled the proposal, and he very slowly and very reluctantly turned in Estel's grip to face the Man, who released him in shock. Looking up at the Man's disheveled face, Frodo realized that although the Man was slightly handsome in a roguish sort of way, he really didn't want to do this. But, he had no choice, it seemed. He had to return to Hobbiton.

So, Frodo looked down and very tentatively started to undo the belt that held the Man's trousers up. Estel, thoroughly astounded, alarmed and disquieted that the Hobbit would ever think that he'd force him to do such a thing, reacted instinctively and pushed the halfling, hard, off his lap and unfortunately, into a tree stump three feet away.

Frodo yelped in pain and faint surprise when his back hit the rough bark. That would definitely be a bruise later. He lifted his head a bit and watched the Man for any more violence with trepidation through wide eyes, unsure of what he'd done to deserve the shove but unwilling, obviously, to ask the fairly intimidating Ranger.

Estel gasped in dismay; he'd hurt the halfling! Crawling closer, he made to help the Hobbit up, but that only made Frodo stiffen, then flinch and curl up into the fetal position, shaking mightily yet braced and expecting a beating. He'd heard the horror stories.

The Ranger sighed and growled to himself, frustrated that he couldn't seem to get anything right today. Frodo scrunched his eyes shut in response to the low growl but was in awe as he felt a large hand scooping him up gently and bringing him closer to the fire, where the hand rubbed his sore back until he relaxed enough to peek through his long eyelashes at the Man who was... comforting him?

"Shh, it's okay. I won't make you do anything that you do not wish to do. And I would never make you perform such an act. I don't mean any harm, Master Hobbit. I simply wished to know why a halfling such as yourself is doing so far north of the Shire," said Estel softly.

Frodo tensed a bit, surprised at the gentleness in the voice, but he found himself soothed by the compassionate tone and opened his eyes all the way. The Man had not restrained him - yet - so he felt a bit safer. "I... don't know," he admitted quietly, eyes averted from the Ranger.

"Were you running from someone?" was the benign-sounding response. Estel looked at Frodo in concern.

"No... I was picking mushrooms in the Shire, near Hobbiton, and while I was washing them in the brook, I seemed to have fallen unconscious and I woke up in this area. I heard you walking by and I wanted to ask for help, but I was too... cowardly and decided to follow you to a nearby town or village." Frodo cleared his throat. "My name is Frodo Baggins."

"Greetings, Master Baggins. I am Estel, a Ranger of the North."

"I am at your service and your family's," Frodo answered automatically, then stiffened as he realized what he'd just said. His cheeks warmed and reddened with embarrassment.

Estel noticed the awkwardness, but paid it no mind. "Frodo... did you eat any plants before falling sleep?"

Brow furrowed in confusion, the Hobbit shrugged before freezing in realization, then replied, "I didn't eat any plants, but I did wash some odd-smelling orange mushrooms in a brook."

The Man sighed in relief and tilted his head back to stare at the stretch of shining stars that could be glimpsed behind wispy slate mist that dappled the sky, the bulk of the heavy water vapour hanging in the air having been pushed eastward by brisk aerial winds. He shook his head, mouth quirking up at one corner, before coming back down to Middle Earth and explaining himself to the befuddled Hobbit regarding him dubiously. "Frodo, those mushrooms release a gas that causes the inhaler to sleep-walk for several hours in a dazed state before they finally succumb to a deep sleep that lasts for even longer. Thank Eru that it was only that." He shuddered, imagining the essential myriad of bizarre plants that flourished in this neck of the woods.

"So... it's harmless?" came the tentative reply, seeking confirmation.

Estel nodded, crawling back to the fire to stir the near-forgotten rabbit stew. "Aye. Most of the time."

Frodo decided that he'd had enough drama for today and ignored that last sentence. "Well, Master Estel, I was wondering... could you perhaps aid me in my bid to return home?"

"And home is Hobbiton?" Estel eyed Frodo sideways, ladling murky stew into two thoroughly scratched wood bowls and setting a dull metal spoon into each one.

"Yes, it is where..." Frodo trailed off as he was handed a bowl of stew, regarding it carefully.

"Go ahead, it is your's. And alright then, I know where Hobbiton is. I shall accompany you there at first light. But for now, we must eat and rest. You have injuries that must heal."

Frodo nodded and started in on the stew, which was surprisingly better tasting than it looked. After the companionable silence that came with eating, broken by nothing save the slurps of the two eating the stew, the whistle of the wind through the branches and the crack-popping of the fire, Man and Hobbit laid down to rest under two disheveled blankets, letting the fire burn itself out.

At dawn, Estel got up, watching the slowly rising sun against the rosy pink sky, not a cloud to be seen after the winds of last night. He inhaled the fresh forest air, full of the scents of pine, rare flowers and dirt. It relaxed him, and he sat there on his bedroll for a few minutes, almost forgetting the smaller form laying a foot away from him, still fast asleep. He only remembered Frodo when the Hobbit stirred in his slumber, and Estel sighed, making himself get up and shake the halfling awake.

"Wuh?" Frodo mumbled, half awake, as two callused hands shook his shoulders. "Merry, go ba' ta sleep. S'no'yet time fo' breakfess."

"Frodo, you must awaken. It is first light, and we must be on our way," Estel spoke softly.

Frodo finally made the jump to full consciousness, and was extremely confused in a tired way as he saw a dirty-looking Man in his face, staring at him calmly. He shot up, looking down at his lap and remembering the events of yesterday and last night. As soon as it all came back to him, Frodo glanced up at Estel, who was gathering his things and putting out the last dying embers of the fire.

They worked in peace, finally returning the clearing to its previous state, before the events of last night, and they set out for Hobbiton, Estel telling Frodo where and where not to step as they navigated the northern forest back to Frodo's dear home. It was a trip that would take many long hours of walking, since the forest was so dense, so Estel decided to regal Frodo with tales of his journeys to the Elves and to the Dwarves, and even to his own kind. Frodo listened in rapt fascination, soaking in every detail about the foreign lands and people, trying to imagine what they would look like in his head. Frodo, in turn, told Estel stories of his childhood in Brandy Hall with his friends, the cousins Merry and Pippin, and the trouble they'd get into together. These stories made Estel laugh; it was a great, hearty laugh that stretched his face into a pleasant smile and it echoed off the trees around them, making Frodo pleased in turn that he could make such a grim-looking Man make such a sound. It even made him laugh with Estel, their two voices intertwining into the forest air.

Eventually, as the sun began to set and the tendrils of clouds turned a fiery red in the sky, Estel and Frodo reached Hobbiton, their feet weary, but their hearts happy. Frodo grinned like a fool at the sight of his comfy hobbit hole, but the grin transformed quickly into a frown as he saw all the Hobbits gathered around his front door. They looked anxious and were all muttering, some carrying lamps and looking like they were preparing to leave soon. Estel hung back as Frodo walked forward, catching sight of his friend Sam in the middle of the group and calling, "Sam! I'm back!"

Sam, poor Sam, had been worrying his little heart for the past two days as Mr. Frodo hadn't returned from his trip to pick mushrooms in the forest. He'd gone out looking, of course, but he'd only found the rotting mushrooms in the brook, and he'd quickly become concerned for Mr. Frodo's welfare an' all. So, the young Hobbit had organized a search party consisting of the strongest Hobbits in Hobbiton, all the while trying not to let Mr. Bilbo become aware of Frodo's absence, so as to not worry the poor sick Hobbit.

They were just about to leave when he heard the thing he'd wanted to hear the most for the past 48 hours: Mr. Frodo's, and, dare he think it, his friend's voice. "Sam! I'm back!"

Sam pushed aside all the muttering Hobbits to the edge of the group, catching sight of Frodo, who looked a bit dirty and had a small cut on his forehead, but was nonetheless none the worse for wear. "Oh! Mr. Frodo! You're okay!" He ran to him and guided his friend back to the front door of Bag End, all the while making the other Hobbits move aside with cries of, "Make way! Make way for Mr. Frodo!"

The others all crowded closer to the bedraggled looking Hobbit, peering at his face and demanding, "Mr. Frodo, where on Middle Earth did you go?" "Frodo, did something take you?" "Mr. Frodo, were you on one of your adventures again?" This last one came from Mr. Sackville-Baggins, frowning disapprovingly.

Frodo somehow pushed through the crowd and turned to face the curious Hobbits, announcing, "Everyone! I am alright. I made the mistake of picking the wrong mushroom in the forest and I sleep-walked for quite a long while, before falling deeply asleep many leagues away from here. I met a Man named Estel - " and here the other Hobbits gasped as if he'd said the Boogeyman " - and he aided me back home once again. I am deeply grateful for his help." Frodo nodded at Estel, who was still hanging back from the crowd but visible to the Hobbits and who nodded in turn. They all, except for Frodo, gasped again and recoiled, though a few of the younger ones leaned a bit closer, curious, before being yanked back by their elder peers.

"What is this? Bringing a Man to the Shire? He'll kill us all!" one Hobbit protested.

"No, no! He's a Ranger of the North. He is meant to protect the Shire," Frodo clarified, hoping it would settle the crowd. It didn't.

Eventually, Sam got the group to disperse, and they all went home, many of them grumbling but a select few of them eyeing Estel over their shoulders, ever curious. Frodo sagged where he stood. It had been a long day of walking and last night had troubled him so at first. Sam took one last look at the tall Man standing a ways away from Bag End, then gently lead Frodo into the hobbit hole and shutting the door.

Estel watched as the last of the Hobbits left the area for their own respective homes and that blond Hobbit, Sam, lead Frodo into the hobbit hole with the green door. He sighed, knowing that his work here was done and that he'd better be on his way. He turned to go, but just as he did, a small voice called him back.

"Mr. Estel!

The Man looked back, and, upon seeing Sam at the door of the hobbit hole nervously fingering a pot of tea, he neared a bit. "What may I help you with, Mister Sam?"

"I was wondering... well, I was wondering if you'd be wanting a cup of tea with us, Mr. Estel."

Estel tilted his head to the side, pondering that. He looked to the sky and figured that it couldn't hurt. Finally, he nodded and gracefully ducked through the stout green door, being greeted by a surprised Frodo and a curious and recovering Bilbo. They had tea and Estel regaled them with more stories about his travels for many hours, and, ultimately, Estel stayed the night at all three Hobbit's insistence.

The next day, Estel woke up before all the Hobbits, as was his wont. He made to leave quickly and quietly, grateful for their famed hospitality but eager to be on his way, following the nomad instincts within him. However, Hobbits are quieter than Men, and he was noticed by one particular Hobbit as he sneaked out of Bag End. Frodo's tired, warm eyes watched him go, his tall form blending into the forest and its trees dappled with sunlight like a forgotten dream. But Frodo never forgot Estel, and he hoped he would cross paths with the Man once again.

...and one day, many years later in an inn on a rainy night in Bree and listening to a man named Strider talk about Ringwraiths, Frodo did.