The voice was unmistakeably Pippin's. His voice was then joined by Sam's and Frodo's sobbing.
Aragorn struggled to his feet and unsteadily tottered over to where Pippin was lying on his pallet with Legolas, Gimli, and Eomer clustered round him. They were no engrossed in their discussion they did not even notice him approaching.
He was hampered not only by his weakness and broken toes, but also the fact that Eomer's breeches were far too large and he had to concentrate as much on keeping them up as on walking.
"It needs lancing, it is infected." Legolas said, brandishing a heated knife in front of Pippin.
"No!" Pippin screamed "Ask Strider, please!"
"Maybe we should, he'd know better what to do and I'm loath to hurt one of the little ones." Said Gimli.
"The King needs to rest. He's still very ill himself." Eomer protested.
Legolas nodded to Gimli, "We will have to do it. Help me hold him down."
Pippin screamed again.
Aragorn reached Pippin just as his legs gave way and he sat heavily on the foot of Pippin's pallet.
"What is happening?" he asked. Even in his weakened state, the authority in his voice was unmistakable. They all stopped as if frozen in mid air.
Pippin broke the silence.
"Help me, please, Strider, they want to cut me, and I'm scared!"
Aragorn inched closer to the Hobbit and could see his blankets were pulled down almost to his waist. The bandages round his ribs were still in place but the gash on his shoulder, which he had stitched closed a few days before, had been unwrapped to reveal a swollen and angry looking wound.
"It is badly infected. We need to drain the poisons from it before he becomes feverish again." said Legolas.
"Now I am awake I will decide what to do." Aragorn said firmly.
Rather unsteadily, he leaned over and felt Pippin's forehead. The Hobbit had a slight fever, which he judged was probably caused by the wound.
"I fear, this my fault, Pippin." Aragorn said regretfully." I should not have stitched the wound, it needed to drain."
"Then you'll have to cut me?" Pippin asked in terror. He then swallowed hard as Aragorn took his hand and squeezed it gently." It's not your fault, you weren't well either," he continued bravely."
"I'll try my best not to hurt you too much, Pippin." Aragorn said trying to sound reassuring. He then turned to the others.
"Bring me several bowls of hot water, towels, bandages and whatever herbs and salves we have." he said". Oh and a small, very sharp knife."
Pippin gave a low resigned moan.
As a fire was already burning to heat the water, the others quickly returned with what Aragorn has asked for. He carefully washed his hands and then gently felt the wound. Pippin bit his lip but still squeaked in agony.
"I am going to take out the stitches, which I fear will hurt and then apply a herbal poultice," he explained to Pippin gently. "That should combat the infection before it makes you feel really ill. Will you let me do that?"
Pippin nodded. "I trust you, Strider."
Aragorn looked anxiously at his own hands and hoped he could keep them from shaking. He managed to smile reassuringly at Pippin before asking Eomer to sterilise the knife in the fire.
"" Who would you like to hold you steady?" Aragorn asked, wanting to give the Hobbit some control over what was being done to him, "You need to keep very still, Pippin as the knife is sharp."
"Gimli, please." The Hobbit replied, trying hard to be brave.
The Dwarf immediately moved behind him and held him down by his arms and good shoulder.
Aragorn looked at Pippin's trusting face with a mixture of sadness and amazement. He felt humbled that the Hobbit trusted him so much and at the same time sorrowful as he feared he still lacked the strength to do anything to ease the pain he was forced to inflict on him.
He wondered if he dared risk using his healing powers. Yesterday had drained him but he felt he was sufficiently recovered not to fear for his life.
He looked straight into Pippin's eyes and raised his hands above the wound.
Pippin made a mighty effort to reach up and grab his hand.
"No! " he cried." You must not, I would not have you take such risks!"
"I would spare you pain if I can. " Aragorn said, his gentle eyes full of tears at the small one's courage.
"Please just tend the wound as I know you will do your best." Pippin said, his voice quavering slightly at the thought of what was to come.
To Aragorn's great relief, Pippin shut his eyes as he picked up the knife, as he feared the Hobbit might see his hand tremble. He took a deep breath, ignoring the pain in his ribs and quickly and expertly sliced through the stitches, cutting through forming scar tissue and opening the wound sufficiently to allow the infection to start draining.
Pippin screamed and Aragorn murmured soothing words, as he battled to control his own emotions." Relax now, Pippin, The worst is over, no more cutting. These herbs will sting a little at first, though."
He washed his hands again and then selected some herbs and mixed them into a paste with the boiled water and applied them to Pippin's shoulder, securing them with a clean bandage, while Gimli still held him still.
Pippin squeaked at the stinging sensation and then gave a sigh of relief that the procedure was over as Gimli released his hold.
Aragorn noticed Pippin was shivering. He felt the Hobbit's forehead again but his fever was still only slight, surely not bad enough to produce such a reaction.
"Are you too cold out here in the open?" he asked.
Pippin shook his head.
"No, the sun is pleasant. It is these cold cloths."
Aragorn pulled the blankets covering him further down and discovered Pippin's belly was covered with cold wet cloths. It was little wonder the poor Hobbit was shivering.
"You did say he needed cold compresses." Legolas said rather defensively.
It was no use arguing that it was only meant as temporary measure as he had not been able to take care of Pippin as he had planned. Aragorn inwardly cursed his own weakness as he carefully removed the wet cloths and gently laid a soft towel over the bruised belly and left it there for a few moments to absorb the moisture, not wanting to aggravate the bruises by rubbing the towel over them.
He then had to steel himself to look, as he dreaded discovering some hurt beyond his powers to heal, though the fact Pippin was still alive boded well.
Peeling back the towel, he very gently felt the bruised area with his fingertips while watching Pippin's reaction.
"Look at me, Pippin!" he said, "Tell me am I hurting you?" He kept his eyes fixed on the Hobbit's face.
Pippin shook his head." They hurt no worse when you touch them." he said." They feel no different than bruises I've had when I've fallen down as a child."
Aragorn could have wept with relief, as he could detect neither swelling nor sign of anything sinister. Instead, he smiled.
"You had a lucky escape from being crushed under the troll, Pippin." He said." I am certain now that nothing within is damaged .As I had hoped, these are just ordinary bruises."
"So I won't have to have these nasty cold cloths any more?"
Aragorn shook his head, "The swelling has gone down now, so no more cold wet cloths!" he replied, as he picked up a jar of salve.
" I shall apply a salve made of marigolds several times a day to heal the bruises instead." he said, carefully rubbing it on with his fingertips.
Pippin grinned happily.
"That is much better! I even know a pretty Hobbit lass called Marigold!"
Aragorn grinned back at his young friend.
"You must be feeling better if you are thinking of pretty lassies! Now rest and I will finish tending you later, he said, though by the time the salve was applied and Pippin tucked in his blankets again, he felt ready to collapse and wondered however he could manage to walk to his own bed.
To his relief and gratitude, Eomer had brought his own pallet and placed it by the Hobbits.
He allowed the King of Rohan to help him to get to his feet and almost carry him the short distance.
"I will tend your other hurts later. While I rest, I will ask Legolas to make you a herbal drink to combat the infection in your wound" he told Pippin." Frodo and Sam need the healing herbs too." He felt guilty he had not been able to go to them and could only manage to smile what he hoped was a reassuring greeting in their direction. His head was starting to swim again and the pain stabbed his side like a dagger.
"Thank you, Strider. I'm so glad you are feeling better! You are so kind and gentle"
Pippin's heartfelt gratitude made his own pain seem as nothing.
Aragorn rested for a while and then fortified by another pain killing draught, determined to tend the Hobbits despite the protestations of his friends, who all said he should get his strength back and leave them to care for Frodo, Sam and Pippin.
However, Aragorn, knowing their lack of expertise in healing was determined to resume caring for them himself.
Fortified by another painkilling fraught of herbs, he asked Eomer to help him to Frodo's bedside while the others fetched hot water, herbs, salves, and clean shirts for the Hobbits.
Frodo was lying still and quiet, as if resting yet his eyes were wide open and dulled with a look of total exhaustion.
"How are you, Frodo?" Aragorn asked, feeling his brow for fever and noting with relief there was none.
"Well enough." Frodo whispered "Just very tired and thirsty."
Aragorn raised a cup of cool water to his lips, which he drained eagerly.
"I am going to bathe you and tend your hurts." He explained looking anxiously at the Ring bearer," Then you must rest."
"I cannot." said Frodo "Every time I close my eyes I see it, like a great wheel of fire in my mind, or worst the Orcs tormenting me." He shivered despite the warm sunlight.
Aragorn, remembering his nightmare vision, felt a keen stab of sympathy.
"Would you it help if you told me about it?" he asked quietly.
"I cannot. I feel too shamed." Frodo's voice was barely audible.
"I think I understand." Aragorn looked him straight in the eye, his gentle eyes full of compassion.
"It will eventually pass, Frodo." He said quietly, "But remember your friends are here to help you now". He started to unwind the bandages from round the small hand. The wound caused by the missing finger was healing nicely and he felt encouraged as he applied a herbal salve and a fresh dressing.
He then took a bowl of steaming water from Legolas, who hovered nearby and crushed an athelas leaf in it.
"I will bathe you now, this should refresh you." he told Frodo as he pulled back the blankets.
He tried to lift Frodo to ease the shirt he was wearing over his head, but found he lacked the strength. Inwardly groaning at his weakness, he was about to reluctantly ask for assistance, only to find Eomer was already supporting Frodo upright.
The lash and claw marks which had so disfigured the Hobbit's small body a few days before were slowly fading and the raw skin was beginning to heal, though not as quickly as Aragorn had hoped.
He started to bathe Frodo and was thankful that this time he made no attempt to struggle though his expression was one of total misery.
"Am I hurting you? " Aragorn asked." I fear I may be a little clumsy though I am trying to be gentle."
Frodo just stared at him and shook his head.
He dried Frodo gently with a soft towel and applied salves to all his hurts including the old Morgul knife wound and the spider bite. These wounds troubled Aragorn the most for although they appeared healed, both felt cold to the touch and maybe always would, he feared.
"The athelas should help ease you," he told Frodo.
"We tried that to no avail." said Gimli pessimistically.
"It works only in the hands of one." Aragorn said so quietly that Gimli, who was standing back to give Frodo some privacy, had to strain to hear.
Finally, a clean shirt was pulled over Frodo's head and he was eased down on his pillows again.
Aragorn patted his hand "You will soon be well, Frodo." he said reassuringly.
"Why are you so kind to me? I do not deserve it!" the bitterness in Frodo's tone shocked the listeners.
"You and Sam saved Middle Earth, you deserve much more than I or anyone else can ever give you!" Aragorn said fervently.
"But I failed! I failed miserably and kept the ring and it caused Gollum's death!" Frodo burst out, a tear escaping from his eye as he spoke.
"You must not reproach yourself." Aragorn told him "You did all and more that any on Arda could be expected to. I could not have carried it as far as you could. As for Gollum, he deserves no tears; I know that creature all too well! Frodo, so many love you, both as a friend and the saviour of Middle Earth!" He gently brushed the tear from Frodo's cheek as he spoke and smoothed the dark curls back from the Hobbit's face.
Frodo raised himself up on his elbows and looked Aragorn straight in the eye for the first time since the destruction of the ring.
"If you cared for me, even a little, you would drive your sword through my heart! " Frodo said bitterly, then fell back against the pillows, his strength failing after his outburst." Just care for Sam, that is all I ask."
"I will. Now you must put such thoughts aside and rest. I will see how else I might help you after I have tended Sam" Aragorn said gently, trying to hide his alarm from the Hobbit, but lines of worry were etched across his handsome features.
He wondered if he would ever see the old Frodo again whom he had so loved for his cheerfulness and determination. Turning his head away, he buried his face in his hands, and wept.
Eomer, seeing what had happened, brought Aragorn a drink, which he sipped it while he composed himself. The others pretended not to notice and busied themselves fetching hot water and salves for Sam.
Sam looked deeply troubled when Aragorn approached his bedside.
"Can't anyone help Mister Frodo?" he asked.
"I am trying, Sam" Aragorn said wearily.
"And you, Mister Strider, surely you're not fit to be up and about?" the Hobbit protested.
"I am feeling much better and it is important I tend your wounds and bathe you." Aragorn replied.
Sam gave Aragorn a look, which if looks could kill, would have felled him on the spot.
"Would you rather Legolas or Gimli tended you then?" Aragorn asked, "They have little experience but they will, if that is what you prefer?"
"I'm a grown Hobbit, it's not fitting I should be bathed like a baby! It matters not who is doing it! What is wrong with me that I still feel so weak?" Sam grumbled as Aragorn knelt beside him and unwrapped the bandage round his head. To his relief, the wound was clean and healing well.
"You went too long without rest, food and water, Sam, but soon you will be strong again." Aragorn said gently but firmly, as he bathed Sam's head and applied a salve and a clean bandage.
He gestured to Legolas to assist and together they took off the shirt Sam was wearing, baring the small body.
Sam looked totally mortified as the covers were pulled back, even though Aragorn was careful to keep him partially covered to respect his modesty. The raw patches of flesh were almost healed and the scratches had faded to faint red marks much to Aragorn's relief.
He bathed the Hobbit, working mainly under the blankets to spare his blushes while at the same time watching him for any signs of pain. His keen senses detected a slight flinching while the washcloth was rubbed over his back.
"Your back hurts." The words were a statement rather than a question.
"I must have pulled something either when carrying Mister Frodo or when that Gollum knocked me over." Sam explained reluctantly.
"You carried Frodo?" Aragorn wondered how many more details of the hardships these two had endured would be uncovered.
"You do what you have to." Sam did not elaborate further as Aragorn patted him dry. He then arranged Sam's blankets so that just his back was left uncovered and started to apply a salve, massaging it in with slow circular movements.
Sam tensed himself as if for some unpleasant ordeal.
"Does your back pain you greatly?" Aragorn asked.
"No." the reply was terse.
"The Elves made this salve." Knowing Sam's love of elves, he hoped this would please him." Sam, this treatment would work far better if you were relaxed. What is troubling you?"
"Just having folks fussing round me. It's not decent!" Sam said miserably.
"But Frodo and Pippin are being tended too." Aragorn said rather puzzled and wishing his own arms didn't ache so much. He would at that moment have gladly submitted to the ministrations of Lord Elrond or any of the Elvish healers using the same techniques that Sam was so indignant about.
"Don't you understand?" Sam's tone was the sort generally used to address a rather dim witted child. "Mister Frodo and Mister Pippin are gentle Hobbits. They should be tended, as they have been all their lives. I'm just Mister Frodo's gardener!"
"You will find things have changed now, Sam." Aragorn replied smiling, now he knew what troubled Sam." You are far more than just a gardener as you'll discover once you are well!"
Sam said nothing.
Aragorn gently eased the clean shirt over Sam's head and carefully pulled it down.
"Rest, now while I return to Frodo." He told him.
"I should be tending Frodo." Sam said miserably. I keep on letting him down. It's all my fault those Orcs took him and that Gollum hurt his poor hand so!"
" It is not your fault. "Aragorn said firmly." Stop tormenting yourself! You are not well enough to care for Frodo yet."
" And neither are you!" Sam retorted as he struggled to sit up." I almost killed you too, I saw what happened, you almost died saving Mister Pippin!"
"Hush, it was my choice. You must stop blaming yourself!" Aragorn's tone was a mixture of alarm and sternness " You too risked your life when you went with Frodo all the way to Mordor".
"Why didn't you come?" Sam said with a flash of sudden anger. "You are big and strong and could have protected him when I couldn't! You bound yourself to serve him through life or death!"
"I had a hard choice to make but could not abandon Merry and Pippin to torture and death." Aragorn said quietly trying to restrain his own growing anger.
"Not so hard as walking through the black land with neither food nor water!" Sam retorted his voice growing louder." Not so hard as going where you felt you'd never return from!"
The others, hearing raised voices, turned to stare at them in silent horror.
"Yours was the hardest part certainly.' Aragorn conceded, his rising anger mixed with memories of the guilt he had felt on the day, he was forced to choose which path to follow "But I never thought to return alive from the Black Gate either."
"You just make excuses. You can't understand. Now let me see to Mister Frodo!"
Sam struggled to get out of bed. The others moved forward in alarm but Aragorn gestured them to keep back
Aragorn, his eyes flashing grabbed Sam's wrists none too gently to restrain him. Sam retaliated by lashing out with his foot catching Aragorn on his injured side.
With a cry of pain, the man released Sam who fell back on the bed sobbing.
Aragorn lifted Sam and held him close, resting the curly head against his uninjured shoulder and letting him cry until he had no tears left. This time Sam did not attempt to pull away when Aragorn put his arm around him laid a hand on his head in comfort.
Eventually the curly head drooped with weariness and Aragorn gently eased him down on the pallet.
"Go to sleep now." he said gently.
"I'll try but it's so hard when all I see is ash and fire and Orcs hurting Mister Frodo. I never meant to hurt you, Mister Strider, I'm sorry."
"As am I." Aragorn said gently, kissing the hobbit on the brow in Gondorian fashion.