Subordinate Claws

by Mrs. Frodo


I. And Then there were Ten

There are older and stranger things than Orcs in the deep places of the world....

It was over. Gandalf steeled himself for what he knew would come. He had foreseen it; he had foreseen everything: the pain, the warfare, Frodo’s anguish, the need for a brand new wardrobe (oh, very well; he was looking forward to that). He had only to wait for the fiery tug to begin his descent. Ah! There was the crack of the whip, searing him as it––

––sped past.

Frodo’s scream popped his eyes open.

Gandalf stared, frozen with shock, at the blazing thong coiled around the Ring-bearer’s ankle. He caught a glimpse of pale, terrified little face before the thong went taut and Frodo snapped into the void.

“Weird,” Aragorn muttered, peering over the edge. “Doesn’t LOOK like the Crack of Doom.”

“Blast that ‘rog and his horrid aim!!” Gandalf raced from the crumbling remnants of the bridge. “Losing both the Ring and the Bearer! What the blazes will I tell Manwë?”

Sam was hurtling forward. “FROOOODOOOOOO!”

“Or––Varda?!” whimpered Gandalf. “Aiiiiii, Varda will KILL me!”

Sam was caught by Boromir, who was muttering florid multilingual curses. Boromir found himself grabbing up Merry and Pippin as well. “Stupid little gits, what are you, hobbits or lemmings?!”

“Ai! We were doomed when we entered!” wailed Legolas. “I knew it, I knew it! All is lost!”

Gimli stopped weeping long enough to give the elf a scowl. “Don’t make me smack you, lad.”


As the lash seized him, a scream burst from his throat and he tumbled into space, Frodo decided that fright alone would certainly kill him.

He was rather disappointed when it didn’t. “Blast my godlike courage, anyway!”

Daring to look down, he saw the balrog at the other end of the whip, and found renewed promise in heart-stopping terror. A taloned hand as big as the Gaffer’s smial was reaching for him. He could do nothing but close his eyes.

Here I go into the fiery maw of a demon, and Sauron will have his Ring belched up for him by tea-time, he thought in despair. I’m sure Gandalf didn’t mean things to go this way.

The vast paw closed about him like a cage.

He had just resolved to die with the dignity required of a sacrifice when he heard the following boomed out in a voice like thunder:

“Don’t fret, Ring-bearer. You’re in good claws. I do this all the time...tumble down the bottomless depths of Moria, that is. Quite a diversion. My, you are a pretty lad, for all you’re no bigger than the gleam in my eye. Ewww–– did I say that? Too Barad-Dur! Bleah!”

Frodo wondered if this whole sorry turn of events was nothing more than one long, elaborate hallucination. Perhaps the rations had gone bad. “Um––beg pardon?”

“You’re quite a surprise!” chattered the balrog. “Then again, so was the wizard, but I mean a nice surprise. So was the elf, but elves are so quick-tempered where we’re concerned––and we won’t talk about dwarves! I only wish I hadn’t been so hasty myself, but I had been SO sound asleep, and then the orcs all started in with their infernal jabbering and whooping and crashing––you know how loud they are, and sound carries ever so far in these caverns––well, I was in a state. And I come upstairs and find a wizard stirring up trouble, as they always do. I just flipped my lid. Wizards mean well, I’m sure, but trouble follows them around like a groveling fire-imp! I was going to give the old git a talking-to, but he hurried off, and anyway I felt the presence of Mr. Too-Evil-For-You and it stopped me right in my tracks.”

Frodo’s stomach twisted. “You felt....”

“Only took me a few moments to figure it out. I must say, though, I was flabbergasted when I realized you’d been stuck with the thing. And I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like you.”

“Lots of––er, people say that,” said Frodo weakly.

“Anyway, I wanted to know what was going on, so I tried talking, but your wizard wasn’t in the mood for it, and since I wasn’t in the mood for being snubbed, I chased him. That tiff at the bridge was the last straw. I SO lost my temper. All I wanted to know was what the old fool thought he was doing, chasing around an orc metropolis with the Ring when any moment the bothersome gnats were going to gang up on you all and take it! He couldn’t have meant to give it back to Eyeball!”


The balrog gave him the gentlest of shakes––between hobbits, an affectionate gesture, but it left Frodo marveling that his teeth were still firmly rooted in his gums.

“The Ring, silly!” chided the balrog. “That wee bit of blood-contaminated gold! And don’t make me say his name, darling; I swore a long time ago I’d never let it pass my lips again.”

Frodo felt as if his brain would explode from the pressure of all the weirdness streaming into it. “ don’t like him?”

The balrog drew him closer and closer until he was nearly smothered by its sulfurous breath. “Like him? LIKE him?!?!” It threw back its fearsome head and roared. Frodo had to stop up his ears. With his ears plugged, the skull-cracking noise almost sounded like laughter. “Oh, that’s rich! Let me tell you how I feel about Mr. Whoop-dee-do Lieutenant of Morgoth! He promised me the moon, the sun and Vingilot...told me he was mine alone. And I believed him! Aulë, what an idiot I was! Why, the creep’s nothing but a bloodshot, double-crossing, offal-gobbling––”

“You don’t want him to have it?” Frodo’s voice was shrill with tension, which meant the balrog heard it easily. Its enormous muzzle loomed over him, sniffing great draughts of air which would have vacuumed him right up had the balrog’s grip been looser. The action reminded Frodo so much of a great friendly inquisitive dog that he relaxed. After all, it hadn’t killed him yet.

“Do you?” rasped the balrog.

Frodo’s arms crossed over his chest. “I asked you first.”

“No,” said the balrog primly. “As a matter of fact, I asked YOU first.”

“Oh. Right,” Frodo sighed. In the heat of the moment he had forgotten. He straightened his shoulders. “No, I don’t, in fact.”

The balrog was silent. Gradually its eyes narrowed to slits. “’re not really...actually...out to get RID of it...are you?”

Ah, the game’s up, Frodo thought, feeling resigned. “Well...yes. That’s the plan.”

“Hmmmm!....” said the balrog. “Amazing....”

Frodo steeled himself. He was certain the monster would kill him now. But the balrog did something else. Again it threw back its massive head and roared. This time there was no mistaking the noise, though it gave Frodo a ringing in his ears which would not subside for a week.

“Now there’s something he’d NEVER suspect!” thundered the balrog. “Brilliant! Oh, too much! Didn’t I tell him not to get so wrapped up in that thing? Oh, my. I don’t know what’s funnier––those big, powerful folk bowing to a wee speck to do the deed, or having Saurgrape’s Precious right here in my claws to gloat over before it melts!”

“Then you’d actually like to see it destroyed?!”

“Oh, that would just be the best fun!” whooped the balrog. Its head started bobbing merrily back and forth. “Eyeball’s going under! Eyeball’s going under!”

Frodo closed his eyes. “Elbereth, what a relief! I wish I could feel so cheerful about it,” he admitted. “The whole thing seems quite hopeless. But it must be tried, or all the earth will be crushed under Sauron’s heel...figuratively speaking, of course, since he hasn’t got feet.”

“Trust me, darling; limited anatomy notwithstanding, Mr. Whoop-dee-doo is a heel.” The balrog’s great glowing furnaces of eyes fixed upon him. “You are a noble little soul, aren’t you! I’m beginning to see why you were okayed for this business...all right, aside from how pretty you are! That being said, those high and mighty elves––what they meant, placing such a chore on your tiny shoulders, I just can’t think.”

Frodo sighed. “I volunteered. They were afraid they’d cave in to it.”

The balrog opened its hand just a little. Wind whistled past Frodo’s ears and he realized they were still falling. How deep ARE these caverns?

“So are you, unless I miss my guess,” the balrog observed. “But you’ve got it anyway.” It held him a little closer. “My, you’re not pretty, you’re beautiful. A far cry from orcs!”

Well, that’s a relief, anyway, thought Frodo. ...I think. “’re a FEMALE balrog, aren’t you.”

“Clever lad!”

“Oh, my.”

“Never mind that. Here’s a deal for you. It would take you weeks to get to Mt. Doom overland––if you survived the trip. But I know all the underground routes, and I could protect you from the heat––why, you could be there in a matter of hours and toss the bloody thing and be away before Saurapple could bat his eye!”

Frodo’s mind staggered around the idea. “You’d help me get rid of it?”

“You bet your wee fuzzy feet I would! –Oh, hang on; we’re going under.”

“We’re wha––”

The breath was knocked clean out of him. A sharp sulfurous tang filled his lungs, and the impact of the balrog’s vast area on the surface of an underground lake nearly jolted him from her claws.

He remembered what she had said just in time to grab a chestful of air before water surged in around him. There was a great pull and heave and then he was high in the air over the lake, still clutched securely in a huge paw, peering down to watch the water turn to steam on the monster’s hide far below.

“Well, sparklet,” said the balrog, “what do you think?”

Frodo’s brain cleared. “You mentioned a deal. What would I have to do in return?”

“That’s simple,” said the balrog. “Be my friend. I haven’t had a friend in ever so long; you can’t count orcs, and trolls are really just the stupidest things.”

“Be your friend?!....”

“Yes. Actually, if you’d just have a chat with me every so often, that would be lovely. Or come ‘round and sit with me while I harvest gems. Come to think of it, I just like looking at you.”


“Oh, I’ve been bored out of my fearsome demonic skull. Never underestimate the catastrophic levels of tedium one can reach while holed up pouting for centuries in the company of orcs. Now, tell me if I’m not talking a win-win situation all around! oh, very well, for everyone but Saurpuss. You fulfill your quest and become a hero for the ages. Middle-Earth is saved. The elves get to leave without a fuss, those annoying wizards retire in dignity, Eyeball’s tacky bit of jewelry is unmade, Eyeball himself dissipates in the wind and I, my dear, have revenge on that two-timing, lying, thieving, no-good, miserable filthy cheating Barad-Tur––” She paused to regain herself. “––Anyway. What do you say, pretty boy?”

Frodo took a deep breath...raked his fingers through his curls. “I like it.”

“Smart lad!”

“But...hold on.” He frowned. “What about you? When Sauron is destroyed, I mean––wouldn’t you be destroyed as well?”

The balrog set Frodo on the broad flat volcanic terrain of her chest. An enormous claw touched his cheek. “Why, that’s so sweet! You’re concerned about me! See, you’re my friend already!” A great molten tear slid from the corner of her eye and fell with a hiss and a billow of steam into the water. “No, his destruction wouldn’t affect me, only the spawned things, the lesser beings. I’m Maia, you know. And in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not really a very good demon, at that. I mean, I’m not nearly a bad enough demon, not for Mordor, certainly.”

“Yes, that would seem to be the case,” said Frodo. “But what of the Dwarves? Aren’t you Durin’s Bane?”

“Hmmm...Durin’s Bane...Durin’s Bane...Durin’s...oh!” She laughed. A stalactite jarred loose from the ceiling and speared into the lake. “You mean the one responsible for killing all those bristly little chaps so long ago. No, dear, that was my predecessor. Quite the arrogant one, he. Toadied up to Eyeball quite shamelessly. I needed a nice desolate place to lair far from Mr. Wandering Eye, and Khazad-Dûm was perfect, but the fellow wouldn’t share space, though there was quite enough room in these caverns for two of us.” She stirred the water with a claw. “I was in a petulant mood, nursing a freshly broken heart, and he was insufferable. So, of course, I thrashed him senseless, and then I ate him. Very therapeutic.”

Frodo wasn’t at all shocked. “And Balin?”

“Orcs and trolls. All orcs and trolls. I was so far underground looking for fresh crystals I didn’t even notice the row when it happened. Are you feeling a bit better now?”

“Well...yes, for better or worse, yes, I am,” said Frodo. “Will you truly be able to sneak into Mt. Doom without being noticed?”

“Right into it. Just hold out your wee hand, drop the Ring and it’s gone. Don’t worry, dear; we’ll be going too fast for him.” She thought for a moment. “Come to think of it, I was always too fast for him. You know, we actually used to have contests to see who could roast the most marshmallows on themselves at once! And he’d call me his old flame. Oh bloody roaring pits, can you imagine that!” Her laughter prompted a downpour of stalactites. “Come along; we’ll have lots of time to chat later. Let’s see how clever Slagheap is at getting out of this one!”

“Harvesting gems?” Frodo mused as the balrog clutched him securely and exploded from the water.


The Eight Walkers found they had no reason to rush. The orcs had lost interest in them. The Ring––rather, the lack of the Ring––was at fault.

For once Gandalf would rather have been trailed by an army of the unwholesome things, for it would have meant the last awkward moments in Moria hadn’t happened.

Once the first waves of anguish and ire and sheer annoyance passed, they decided to head for Minas Tirith once they got clear of the mountains. Lothlórien no longer seemed so important now they had lost both the Ring and its caretaker, though Merry and Pippin, who had recovered nicely, if a bit fast, suggested they would very much like to take up with the wood-elves and party like it was 1499. Gandalf muttered something about mourning and decorum and respect for the dead, also noting that the wood-elves of these parts were serious, sensible creatures, not at all like the folk of Rivendell, who often as not would go about at all hours singing songs about ‘dwarves’ beards a-wagging’ or ‘nine Ring-lords a-leaping’ or some other such nonsense. After this disclosure Merry and Pippin were quite content not to visit Lothlórien. Little else remained, then, but to go with Boromir and steel themselves for the end.

It was dinnertime for everyone except Sam, who had been so distraught as to receive a strong dose of sedative tea from Aragorn. A bit too strong, as it happened. He was snoring contentedly, oblivious to the cold meal partaken by the others.

In the lull which followed, Aragorn cleared his throat. He looked craftily around. “There was a young lady from Bree....”

“One more brainless limerick, Aragorn son of Arathorn,” said Boromir, “and I will crush your larynx to dust.”

Suddenly a tremor like the first wave of an earthquake radiated through the ground east to west. Gandalf jerked around and stared into the east. His eyes bugged. “What the––”

Another shockwave, then a third, and the earth bucked like a wild horse. Everybody went sprawling except, of course, for Legolas, who rode the heaving earth with his usual profligate grace.

“Look!” the elf cried. “A plume of fire reaching the heavens! Explosions! Mayhem! The earth convulsing! Is this exciting or what?!” He whipped around to the others, his eyes wide. “It is Orodruin! The mountain is convulsed! And Barad-Dur––”

Gandalf scrambled up, and then even he could see it: baleful twin spires of magma rocking with explosions, and a vast, hideous shadow, expanding, expanding––only to fall apart, pitifully batting its eye.

“Mercy!” Gandalf whispered. “Varda may not kill me after all! What in Arda––I can’t imagine what happened!”

He really couldn’t.


Frodo clung to the balrog’s neck. His eyes were pinched shut to keep from having to see the rush of liquid flame all around them.

“Here we are, darling! See, I said I’d get you here quickly. Now pluck off that chain and let the thing go!”

Frodo pulled. The chain popped free. The Ring swayed like a pendulum below his hand.

“C’mon, little one! Drop it! Drop! drop! drop! drop! drop!”

The Ring stayed put.

“What’s the matter?” asked the balrog. She looked, and saw that Frodo was holding Sauron’s tacky bauble at arm’s length, staring as it rocked gently back and forth on the chain. His eyes were glazed.

“Oh, rubbish!” she muttered, thought for a second, then––“ah...ah...ahhhhhCHOOOO!”

A very good thing it was that she had a secure grip on Frodo, or her sneeze might have blown him up and out the chamber through the tall gateway. As it was, the only thing that went flying was the Ring. It meteored high over the lava flow and hovered, smug and defiant, until gravity became annoyed with its impertinence and yanked it down, where it bobbed on the molten rock like a snotty little boy sticking out his tongue upon exile to the corner.

Frodo blinked. All his long, wild curls had blown sideways; he couldn’t see. “Thanks, but you know, I could’ve done that. I really could have.”

“I’m sure of it, dear,” soothed the balrog as she watched the Ring dissolve. “Let’s go now. Things are going to be very interesting around here in a second or three. –Hey, Saurface, old flame! Take THAT, you pugnacious, repugnant, festering, pus-filled maggot brain! No more dates for YOU! Say ‘Up yours!’ to Morgoth for me, will you?!”

Frodo’s eyes had cleared; also, he had raked his curls more-or-less into place. The glassy hypnotized look had left him. Tears ran down his face. “It’s gone! It’s done! I’m free!”

“Ohhhh yes!” cackled the balrog. “Now we’d better find those silly friends of yours. Just you remember our deal!”

“How could I possibly forget?”


The earth rumbled louder and louder until Gandalf was convinced he would have to do some major wizardly intervention. He was about to lift his staff and start shouting things when quite a distance from them the ground exploded as if struck by a rocket.

Actually, it was more as if a rocket had come up through the mantle.

Gandalf fell back, white as death, as the balrog of Moria blasted into daylight, throwing earth and rock and shrubs and trees and an assortment of surprised rodents in every direction.

“Hi!” said the balrog.

Eight astonished pairs of eyes saw Frodo wave from the spiky enclosure of the balrog’s claws.

“Hullo!” called Frodo cheerily. “Save any supper for me?”

Gandalf was wishing he’d taken Aragorn’s advise and put on a Depend that morning. Then he was distracted by the sight of Merry turning cartwheels in the grass nearby. “Meriadoc Brandybuck, please contain yourself!” To the balrog, “Kindly put Frodo on the ground, you unclean spirit, or I shall turn this staff to a firehose and douse you!”

Pippin tugged at his sleeve. “Gandalf, what’s a firehose?”

“You will do no such thing, Gandalf the Grey!” Frodo scolded. “She just helped me destroy the Ring! She’s my friend, and I
won’t hear of such pranks!”

The balrog positively flared with joy. “Friends, we’re friends! Ah, here you go.” She set her paw on the grass so he could climb down. “Don’t fret on my account, love. Wizards are old windbags; everybody knows that.”

Gandalf bristled. His eyebrows stood out like quills. “WINDBA––”

“And who may this be?” asked the balrog, sitting cross-legged in the entire northern half of the clearing. “This little plump one who looks half-asleep?”

“Sam!! Dear Sam! Come here and meet our new friend!”

Sam rubbed his eyes. The tossing of the earth had jarred him half-awake; the thunderous eruption of he-knew-not-what had brought him unsteadily to his feet. Now he saw beautiful, beloved, very-much-alive Mr. Frodo standing in front of a clawed hand the size of Sandyman’s mill. His eyes and perspective widened.

With a surprised grunt he passed out cold.

“Oh, rubbish,” said the balrog. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t look quite so much the Terrible Reeking Sadistic Demon Queen of Thangorodrim. Only sometimes, mind you.”


II. SMÉAGOL, the Little Nipper

The Ring had disintegrated in a storm-tossed sea of molten rock. So, too, had the Great Flaming Eye, the Nazgûl, Barad-dûr, thousands of orcs and, luckily, a stretch of real estate which would have swallowed up every last coin in Gondor’s Superfund. All that remained was to dust off the high throne in Minas Tirith and settle the new king onto it.

Denethor, Steward of Gondor, stuck out his tongue with concentration as he finished twining a wreath of laurel branches.

The wreath was lopsided. Nobody in Minas Tirith had the heart or nerve to tell Lord Denethor he was no good at crafts. He was even less good at crafts after he’d put away a bottle of wine.

“I don’t see why I should just plop the crown on that man’s head and step aside with a smile,” he growled. “HE hasn’t been keeping an eye on the Eye with a fancy crystal ball. HE didn’t come all the way from Valinor to meddle in our affairs. HE didn’t have lots of weird, cryptic dreams. And HE didn’t destroy the Ring! Here, lean this way, Master Baggins....”

After a few ungainly attempts he stuck the wreath on Frodo’s dark curls.

“There!” he chortled. “I’d let you sit on that throne, brave little creature, but sadly, it’s too big for you.”

“Um...thank you,” said Frodo, ever the Courteous Halfling. “I appreciate the thought, but really, I’m sure Aragorn is just the right size for it. Truly, Lord Denethor, I couldn’t have destroyed the Ring without the help of my friends, large and small.” He was of course thinking of the balrog as well as of the others in the Fellowship. Roggie (as he’d come to think of her) had been particularly helpful, indeed, in making sure he carried out his quest. He thought of her often and was embarrassed that he had never enquired after her real name.

“Aren’t you the proper hero, then!” chuckled the Steward. “Modest and unassuming to a fault. Here, this wine is excellent, isn’t it?”

The wine was so excellent Frodo had stopped at a quarter cup. “Certainly is!” he said while furtively pouring the new cupful into the earth behind him. The White Tree needed all the help it could get. He was trying to think how he could weasel the Steward’s cup in that direction as well.

“Here!” cried Denethor. He tugged the ring off his finger and shoved it onto three of Frodo’s, then crunched the hobbit’s child-sized hand in his. “Take this! I’ve no use for it. All I do is wear it!” He giggled.

Frodo regarded his aching fingers with just the slightest wince on his beautiful face. With a little soap I could work this thing up a bit further to use as a bracelet. “Lord Denethor, you’re too generous. Your signet ring?! With all due respect and gratitude, sir, I just can’t accept this.” Or lift my hand.

“Nonsense. Keep it, keep it! I won’t need it anymore.” Denethor sniffled. “Just a worthless bauble once the King is crowned, after all. He’ll have no need of me. No need for poor Denethor! I’ll just go out and sweep the streets, that’s all. ‘Go out and sweep the streets, Deni; there’s a good lad!’ he’ll say, and I’ll do what I’m told because that’s the kind of mild-mannered, noble, selfless Steward I am, but he needn’t expect me to be happy about it. Ah, no-one understands, Ring-bearer, no-one but you! Oh, my lot is piteous, just piteous!”

Frodo sighed, not meaning to, but he was having an attack of homesickness. This ordeal was redolent of the endless nights he’d endured at the Dragon listening to Blogobund Grimytoes snivel about one amorous disaster after another. He took a deep breath. “Things will get better, my lord. Just wait and see! Aragorn will ask you to remain as Steward. Everything will be fine!”

Aragorn was just out of earshot, sulking by the wall. He had a handful of rocks and was dropping them one by one over the ledge.

“Ow!” cried a faint voice many levels below.

He fingered another rock. “‘A Steward did sit in a palace /’” He dropped it. “‘toward whom I felt all kinds of malice /’”


“‘’til finally one day / him back I did pay /’”


“‘by smashing his nice golden chalice!’” He released them all.

“Ow!” “Ow!” “Ow!” “Ow!” “Ow!” “Ow!” “Ow!”

Aragorn leaned over the wall. “Hey, that was a good limerick, darn it!”

“Sorry, old man,” said Boromir. “Majority rules. Say, did you know that when you drop something, it falls––often onto someone?”

The Heir of Elendil frowned. “Your point being?”

“Never mind. Say, Father’s really taken to Frodo, hasn’t he! There’s just something about a chap who turns one’s immortal, invincible arch-nemesis into vapor....”

“Oh, sure,” sniffed Aragorn. “Easy enough when you’ve got a balrog on your side! Has Frodo told him about that?”

“Many times,” Boromir assured him. “Father just laughs. He thinks Frodo is very amusing.”

Aragorn pouted. “Frodo doesn’t put together limericks like I do.”

“One of the many demonstrations of his wisdom,” Boromir said gravely.

“Your dad wants Frodo to be king,” grumbled Aragorn. “And the king gets to marry Arwen, so Frodo would marry Arwen, and I’d be out on my rear in the dirt with nothing but this!” He gestured to the magnificent sword, Andúril, at his hip.

Boromir gazed enviously at Andúríl, all the while imagining Frodo hand-in-hand with the statuesque Arwen. His eyes glazed. “What in M.E. would their children look like?” he thought aloud. “Pretty, of course, but come on––elves with woolly feet? Aa, who cares; he destroyed the Ring and he’s got a balrog on his side. A balrog! Hmmm. Yes. King Frodo. Not bad. I’ve heard far worse. How about poor old Dungshloppel of Glurb, over east of Mordor somewhere? Sorry, but no kingdom is worth that! Sauron wouldn’t even attack him. Hmm, hmm, hmm. Frodo. Why not? Be nice if the king had a functioning brain in his skull, after all. We’d have to scale that throne down...oh, what the Void; it’s too ostentatious anyhow....”


Boromir cleared his throat. “Honestly, Ari! My father wants NOBODY to be king. He wants to be Steward and rule Gondor; that’s all he’s ever known. Think of things from his perspective: if he isn’t Steward, what would he be? Would he get his own little stall in the market selling crooked laurel wreaths?”

“I’d give him a job,” Aragorn protested. He thought about it. “Does he know any good limericks?”

Boromir suppressed the urge to throttle him. “Father wouldn’t make a very good jester, Ari.”

“No, I suppose not. He IS on the grumpy side.” Aragorn watched as Frodo gave another cup of wine to the dead tree. A strange movement on the other side of the tree caught his eye. “Say, Bori––was that bush there yesterday?”

“Bush?” Boromir frowned. “There aren’t any bushes around the White Tree...well, unless the palace gardeners lost track of Samwise for a few hours.”

He was annoyed when he looked where Aragorn pointed and was forced to admit that a bush had indeed sprouted, seemingly overnight, among the Tree’s roots. Just why and how it had gone to all that effort was beyond him, as it was a ratty, pitiful mess, leaves wilted and turning brown, several branches broken. It looked as if it would profit greatly from an entire vintage.

“Shameful!” sniffed Boromir. “A dying bush under the White Tree.”

“But they match!” Aragorn said.

“Hmph,” grunted Boromir. “It must be a prank. Of course it’s a prank––in fact, it’s got ‘Merry and Pippin’ written all over it. Really, those two have no decorum whatsoever––”

Aragorn stared. “I don’t see anything written there! Hey! See?!” He clutched at Boromir’s arm. “It IS moving!”

“You’ve got to quit playing Chutes and Ladders with the guards’ children and get more sleep,” Boromir insisted. Nonetheless, to humor the future King of Gondor he stared at the bush until his eyes watered.

Brown leaves moved dully in the breeze. The rest of the bush was still as stone.

“Well, it was,” muttered Aragorn.

Boromir patted his shoulder. “Go get a nice nap, Ari. I’ll let you know if it moves again.” His eyes narrowed. “Hmm. I wonder if Merry and Pip would like clods of nice fresh Gondorian dirt on their second breakfast plates?”

Frodo finally got hold of the bottle, slipped it behind his back and shoved it nose-first into the loose soil. The muffled gurgle as the bottle emptied itself was most gratifying. Denethor never noticed a thing, busy as he was with stacking the dishes in a wobbly pyramid.

Meanwhile, the new bush rivalling the White Tree in the extent of its deadness and immunity to alcohol had no plans whatsoever of moving again––that is, not so long as Frodo stayed put.

Sméagol bit his lip, trying very hard not to mutter ‘Gollum! gollum! tricksy Bagginss!’ It was so difficult that his resolve wavered for a moment. The dying leaves rattled faintly all around him.

My preciousss! he thought desperately. My preciousss! All gold and round and worth a nice big dark cave with a big pond with big fishes and frogses and eggses and all the good things Sméagol loves! Sméagol pawn the Precious and buy dream cave in mountainss––only edible neighborses for lucky Sméagol! No Bagginses; no fat, stupid gardener! Only fish and frogses and eggses and lucky Sméagol, gollum, gollum!

No! what Sméagol thinking?! Can’t live without the Preciouss!

But...sssss...big cave...lots of fish and eggses....

A wild light flashed in Sméagol’s eyes. He looked around guiltily, licking his lips. Ah! Sméagol knows what to do!
Have nice man melt Precious––make little souvenir Precious––Sméagol use rest to buy dream cave in Misty suburbses! Nice quiet cave, nice fish, yes, preciouss, is a plan!

Not so fast, Sméagol, my love...first we must HAVE the Preciouss. We must get it back from nasty, tricksy Baggins.

Wait! What about rumorses Sméagol has heard? Terrible rumorses! What if rumorses are true? Sméagol went from his usual sickly grey-green color to livid white. Luckily Frodo sat facing away from him, and Denethor––truth be told, in his current state Denethor was likely to mistake the branch-clad Sméagol for an enting lawn ornament.

Rumorses not true, silly! Does Sméagol believe everything he hears? Does Sméagol read stories in ‘Gondor Enquirer’, eh? Tell us, eh, what Sméagol has learned about ways of wicked peopleses.

Ssssss.... ‘Alien Bigfoot Gimli’s Real Dad’?

The sheer volume of outrage going off in Sméagol’s head made him dizzy. Here real news flash! ‘Sméagol gullible loser!’ Bad, bad Sméagol! Not read trash from checkout lane in Buy ‘n’ Ride anymore, not! Sméagol must have clear head to get back the Preciouss!

Then...Precious not...not...Gollum knows....

Lost? Melted in big crack?

Sméagol winced.

Course not, silly! Only lies to fool poor Sméagol. Look at wicked Baggins’s hand and you will see! There it is, my love, plain as night in cave!

Sméagol squinted. Is ring, preciouss...but color of nasty cold sword, not color of ugly Yellow Face. And what
is black stone doing in Preciouss, we asks? Not right, no, ssssss!

Foolish! Is plain––clever Precious disguised. Not thrown in fire if not look like the Precious! But we knows, my love. We sees it for what it is. Meant for us, gollum, gollum!

Sssssss! Sméagol glanced about nervously. Not bounce up and down; not be noisy, preciouss. Not want to be found by wicked Baggins or crazy drunk Steward.

Steward is stewed, eh?

Sméagol bit his hand to muffle a snort. Stop! No time for silly jokeses from Gollum! How we get Ring from tricksy Baggins?

Well, we not ask for it, that for sure. That get us quick trip to lowest dungeon in city. No nice fish there; only ratses! Ratses meaner than orcses, though got to admit, much tastier.

Gollum digress, he doess.

Gollum never let Sméagol near dictionary again! Anyway, we says, do it quick and smart before drunk Steward and idiot King and nasty servant jump to rescue. Pounce on Baggins and grab Precious. Precious come right off. Precious likes us! We better than sneaky hobbitses anytime! We not throw poor Precious into volcano; we keep it safe forever and ever, gollum, gollum! At least til we sells it for real estate!

Denethor passed out, face down, in the apple salad.

Frodo managed to roll Denethor out of the salad before he smothered in it. Then he set about wiping the man’s face clean.
Denethor snored gently.

“Oh, really, now,” Frodo muttered. “Hobbits in a stupor on the ground are one thing; the Steward of Gondor is quite another. Blast! Where’s Boromir? He said he would meet us here.” He shaded his eyes and looked around.

Now, my precious!

The next instant Frodo found himself rolling head over heels, tangled in clammy, gangling limbs, dead leaves and the rest of the apple salad.

“The Precious!” panted Sméagol. “Give it to us, naughty Baggins!”

“Precious?!?” cried Frodo as he tried to break Sméagol’s grip.

“The Ring!” howled Sméagol, grabbing Frodo’s left hand.

Frodo stopped cold. “What? THAT? That’s not the One Ring, silly! It’s Denethor’s signet ring! Ow! Wait! Stop! It’s stuck!”

“We sees about that!” the mad creature gurgled, and before Frodo could blink, the ring and his three trapped fingers were in Sméagol’s mouth. Sméagol’s sharp teeth caught behind the ring and tugged.

“Don’t bite down!” cried Frodo. “You can have the thing, just don’t bite down!”

The ring came off with a backward jerk of Sméagol’s head. Frodo yelped and ruefully examined his scraped knuckles.

“Not bite, silly hobbit!” burbled an exasperated Sméagol around the ring in his mouth. “Baggins too sweet for us. Ick!”

At once his expression changed. His eyes bulged so much Frodo feared they would explode. He made a tight, queer whistling sound and clutched at his throat.

“Oh, you didn’t!” cried Frodo, scrambling up. “It’s stuck in your throat?!”

Sméagol squeaked in affirmation, pathetic and a little blue.

Frodo heaved a deep sigh. “Sticklebacks! Oh, all right, hold on; I’ll try to fetch it out.” He reached into Sméagol’s froglike mouth, feeling carefully, and was relieved to catch his forefinger inside the band. Carefully he began to draw it out––


The next few moments were a blur of Sméagol spit, salad, dirty hair, shrieks, and a bit more pain than necessary.

Frodo came to in a lovely, airy, sunlit private room in the House of Healing. Ioreth had given him a powerful concoction to ease his rest and the throbbing in his wounded hand, so he was blissfully unaware of the splendid row in progress outside.

Not nearly far enough from the House of Healing to satisfy the demands of courtesy, Aragorn cowered against a wall, trembling with fear, the eye of a storm of wrath. Sméagol danced before him in a delirious fury, hissing things nobody understood but which prompted the mothers round about to cover their children’s ears. Sam waved his heaviest frying pan. For once, the look of pure murder in his eyes was not directed at Sméagol. Merry and Pippin had an array of rocks at their disposal and were visibly weighing whether or not to throw them. The remainder of the Fellowship was torn between holding the little folk back and cheering them on.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!” cried Legolas. “This is so exciting!”

Gimli grunted and crossed his beefy arms over his chest. “Shut your lembas hole, lad! That’s no way to talk about a good hearty punch-down.” Then, framing his mouth with both hands, he cried, “Go on, Master Brandybuck––use that fine chunk of granite there!”

“Stupid, dirty Ranger, hitting us on head!” Sméagol raged. “Made us bite down! Bad, nasty man! Sméagol broke tooth! Poor nice Baggins, poor Sméagol, poor tooth, poor Precious, stupid, stupid, filthy Ranger! Precious better not be dented or we hires fancy lawyer and sues! Bah!” He spat on the cobblestones. “Not get sweet Baggins taste out of mouth for weeks!”

An onlooker fainted.

“And what ABOUT my poor Mr. Frodo?!” Sam yelled. “What about his poor finger?! Him just trying to help and all! That dead Tree’s got more sense than you, you feather-brained ninnyhammer, king or no!”

“For Overheaven’s sake, I didn’t mean it!” wailed Aragorn. “Gandalf! Bori! Fari! Call them off or something! Aren’t you going to help me?”

Whistling, Gandalf looked pointedly away.

“Do you think we should toss down a shield?” asked Boromir of Faramir as they watched from the battlements.

Faramir rubbed his head where it had been repeatedly struck by falling rocks. “And risk hitting the little ones or that gangrel creature? Not for a moment.”

“You weren’t too hard on him, I hope,” said Frodo sometime later. “Just half a finger. It’s not that bad.” He was sitting up in bed playing checkers with Faramir. Boromir and Sam were deeply involved in a game of Crazy Eights by the window.

“Not hard enough,” scowled Sam. “Gandalf finally coaxed us away.”

“What did that take?” asked Frodo.

“For me? Well, I get three days in the royal kitchens telling them fine cooks what to fix and how, and three more days the same with the gardeners. Oh, and I get to give Strider all the sauce I want for three whole hours.”

“Perfect!” laughed Frodo.

“Course you know what Merry and Pip wanted,” Sam continued. “And they got it, too. They each got a brand new larder, all to themselves, full up with every good thing you can imagine. We’ll have to roll ‘em home.”

Frodo laughed harder. “But what about Sméagol?”

“Freedom; bucket of fresh fish; that old ring,” Sam said. “That’s all he wanted. There just ain’t no accounting some folk.”

“And there he went,” said Faramir. “The last we heard from him was a lot of talk about real estate and something Gandalf calls ‘aquaculture’.”

Boromir grunted. “He took all that money and went back to the mountains, and I say good riddance!”

“Who knew somebody’d be willing to give him so much for Denethor’s old ring,” Frodo said.

“Especially after the trip it made,” groaned Sam. “Yuk!”

“You can sell anything in the auction houses of Gbay,” said Faramir.

“Someday I’m going to see how much that old Horn of Gondor would bring,” said Boromir.

Faramir grinned at him. “Better split it with me!”

A few months later a monstrous shadow fell over the city. Everybody screamed and ran, including King Aragorn II Elessar, who dove behind a statue of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Elros and huddled there, shaking and whimpering, “Make her go away! I didn’t mean it! It was just half a finger! I’ll never hit Gollum again while he’s getting rescued! How was I supposed to know? Make her go awayyyyy!”

Arwen leaned out the window. The shadow was cast by an enormous ugly fiery thing which could only be a balrog. There was a faint whiff of sulfur in the air.

She sighed. “Relax, dear. It looks as if she’s only passing through.”

Indeed. The balrog had considered dropping in to say ‘hi’ to her friends in the city, but she could tell that the mere presence of her shadow had put the place in a dither, and being a rather bad example of a demon she wished to cause them no further grief. She contented herself with dipping a claw into the Anduin and humming loudly and out of tune on her way to do a bit of sight-seeing in what was left of Mordor.

“Well!” she sighed happily as she kicked a pile of ash into one of the huge crevasses. “Serves you right, doesn’t it, Saurrot! Remember when you told me my fires were so banked I could brush my fangs with an oak tree?! HA!”

She plucked up a boulder, popped it into her mouth and chewed. Presently she blew an enormous bubble shimmering with heat. With an air of tremendous satisfaction she lifted a claw and burst the bubble. Streamers of lava rained in all directions. “Hey, Saurwrong! YOU couldn’t turn WATER to steam if you stared at it FOREVER!!” She took the wad of fresh lava in her paw and stretched it out like a child stretching taffy before gobbling it down. She made a face. “Not quite Rohan’s finest sub-Aglarond, is it. You did have a way of spoiling every single thing you touched, didn’t you, Saurretch! Well, I hope they get this place up and running soon. Nothing like water and greenery to freshen everything up!”

Soon she had forgotten all about her old flame in the sheer joy of skipping like thunder enfleshed across the barren landscape. She didn’t notice––and wouldn’t have cared if she had––that behind her the fragile crust was splitting apart beneath the assault of her huge hind paws.

That weird grey corner of Mordor, blasted, melted and stomped into submission, would eventually become a tourist attraction known throughout Middle Earth as the Bland Canyon, a fitting money-maker for the ex-slaves of the Eye, who for reasons they themselves could never understand would use the likeness of a balrog on their coins.

Perched on the lofty throne of the Kings of Gondor Aragorn played with a loose thread in his tunic.

He bit his lip. ‘Gondor’ was a hard word to rhyme. Why couldn’t his realm have had an easy name––like Ham, or Spam, or Wham?

He shivered. Maybe not Wham.

He would miss his comrades of the Fellowship but their departure had actually been a relief. After the unpleasantness at the wall the mere glimpse of a hobbit had made him nervous.

“‘Protect the Ring-bearer!’ Elrond said,” he grumped. “‘Protect Frodo! Nothing in there about protecting the King of Gondor, was there?! Hmmmm...oh, hey! How about...‘/ and the queen’s nice green gown /’...a-hem!....”

He struck a triumphant pose.

“Again there’s a high king of Gondor
Whose glory flies high as a condor!
I like my old crown
and the queen’s nice green gown...
But now I just sit here and pondor!’”

The White Sapling trembled all over before absorbing a long, deep drink from the wine-saturated earth.


III.: As the Worm Turns

Frodo stared, aghast.

All his many trials and adventures had not prepared him for the sight before his eyes. He had been away for an entire year getting rid of the Ring, but the Shire should not have changed at all, let alone like this, not in a year’s time.

Bag End. Bilbo’s Bag End. His home––

“Oh, Mr. Frodo.” Sam was riveted to the ground by shock. “It’s like Isengard!”

“Only worse,” whispered Frodo.

“Well, well, well!” sneered a deep, unctuous voice. “If it isn’t the former owner of this rat-tunnel! Welcome home, Master Baggins. Do have a seat!”

Frodo frowned at the old Man in the gaudy iridescent turban and matching full-length iridescent bib with his white beard done up in curlers and his face plastered with a strange green muddy substance and his fingerclaws being buffed by a bored, comely Hobbit lass. “Do I know you, sir?”

The Man ignored his query. “Frodo Baggins, Ring-Bearer. Elf-friend. Toast of the West. Savior of Middle-Earth. Nauseatingly Pretty Poster Boy for All Things Good and Right In Arda. Quite a reputation you’ve made for yourself, ratling, while I was turned out of my modest little home––at my age!––to make a living as best I can!”

“Ah. I understand now.” Frodo crossed his arms. “As I recall, Saruman, your ‘modest little home’ was a massive stone tower, and the loss of it, as well as its tasteless interior decor, was entirely your fault.”

“All depends on the spin, my little nemesis, it all depends on the spin.” Saruman frowned at the comely Hobbit lass. “Get this rubbish off my face! It itches!”

“Hush, Grumpy,” she retorted. “It has to stay on another ten minutes. You want to look your evil best, don’t you?”

Saruman’s mouth twitched. “Well...all right.” He sat back and gestured with his free hand. “What do you think of it, Baggins, hmmm? My own little empire!”

Frodo squinted through the gathered crowd of Hobbits and ruffians at the crudely painted sign on the gate. “‘Sophistication by Saruman the Suave––for the Toney Thug’,” he read. “Well, that would explain everything else pretty neatly.” He had been upset by the toppled trees and transformed homes, but downright bewildered by the signs in the yards of many of those homes saying things like ‘Salon Malevolence’, ‘Wizard Weaves/Hair-Raising Enterprises’, ‘Smial Nails and More’, ‘Skin Art by Wolverine the Footpad,’ etc., which they had seen everywhere on their way home.

“Begging your pardon, Saruman the Trashily Multihued,” said Merry, “but didn’t you learn anything at all about the worm turning while you were under house arrest with Mr. Cheerful?” He gestured toward Wormtongue, who was perched in a worn-out salon chair getting his ear hair trimmed.

“Begging yours, Master Marry-a-Duck, but haven’t you heard that evil never learns?” hissed Wormtongue. “And what’s wrong with how I turn?!”

Saruman wrenched around to glare at his sidekick. Wormtongue cowered and muttered unrepeatables.

“Why don’t you have a seat, Master Baggins?” the ex-wizard then purred to Frodo, gesturing toward an empty chair. “I think you would look quite interesting without all those bouncy, annoying curls––in fact, I think you’d do very well with a shaved head!”

Gasps broke from every Hobbit throat. This was a worse punishment than the Lockholes.

“Down on your knees in the road and ask pardon,” snarled Pippin, drawing his sword, “or I will set this troll’s bane in you!”*

Frodo put a hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “Never mind, Pip. He has no power anymore, not really––only a limited ability to cow people half his height and to make everyone else roll their eyes and crack jokes about his fingernails.”

The ground shook.

Wormtongue looked at Saruman. “Did you do that?”

“Do I look as if I did?” said the ex-wizard, glowering. –BOOM.– “Drat those fool Breelanders and their break-time! I told them not to play with my Evil Black Powder of Doom!”


Frodo and his friends, as well as all the other Hobbits, looked around, trying to figure out what was happening, but they saw no sign of anything more untoward than a ruffian suspending bratty little Digger Lardbelly in the air by the back of his shirt, admiring a new nose-ring in the mirror in Digger’s hands.

BOOM again, and BOOM, and now they realized the booms had a rhythm to them, and that they were actually coming from quite a distance away but were getting closer. BOOM...BOOM...a slow, vast pulse like a battering ram.

Most of the Hobbits dove for cover, and many a ruffian would have done the same if not for the glance of Saruman upon them all, transfixing them with the sight of his green plastery face.


Sam looked up over Frodo’s head, and up, and up, his eyes bulging. Merry and Pippin followed suit. Pippin quietly sheathed his sword, never taking his eyes away from whatever was approaching.

Frodo’s brow knitted. There was something familiar about the heavy thuds growing louder every second; Pippin’s incredulous expression, not to mention his retiring the sword, seemed awfully familiar as well. Where had this, or something very like it, happened before?

Saruman’s face contorted with mad joy, cracking the plaster. The comely Hobbit lass threw her hands up in disgust, muttered something about having better things to do with her time, and stalked away to plop down on a stump in a fetching pout.

“I could not have planned this better myself!” the ex-wizard cried. “Your doom falls, Ring-Bearer! Behold!”

Done with guessing anyway, Frodo turned. His eyes went very wide. He yelled something incoherent and took off at a run.

Saruman leaped from the chair and danced an unsightly jig, whooping and laughing fit to cry as a great clawed hand the size of Bag End swooped down and snared Frodo with ease.

“Frodo, darling!” boomed a voice which brought down dead tree-limbs and crumpled many a tawdry costume jewelry shack. “My dear, dear Frodo! Oh, this is splendid!”

Saruman’s crazed smile froze solid. His masque fell off.

“Oh but it’s GOOD to see you, pet!” chattered the balrog, practically jumping up and down. “I knew you’d be all right, of course, but to see for myself––” She sniffed and wiped away a tear as big as a draft horse. “Oh Frodo, darling, you’re more beautiful than ever! If I was one of these adorable little Hobbit maids I’d kiss the stuffings right out of you!” She looked down momentarily. “Why, Sam! aren’t you something in those Elvish togs! Merry, Pippin, my word, look at that armor! Say, where’s that grouch of a wizard Olorín?”

“Visiting Tom Bombadil,” said Frodo as he happily settled into the balrog’s enormous palm.

“Tom who? Sorry, love, I haven’t been up here for the looongest time.”

“The Master, the fellow who married Goldberry, the River-Woman’s daughter.”

The Balrog thought for a moment, then brightened. Everyone squinted. “Oh, yes! I remember now. Little man with the bad fashion sense. Hmph. No surprise there; of COURSE Olorín would be his friend. But I AM surprised the River-Woman would let her girl marry a chap who goes around singing utter nonsense like a fool and wearing bright yellow Wellies day in and day out, no matter how powerful he is. There’s no accounting for taste. But this doesn’t explain why I’m getting such a strong whiff of WIZARD, dear heart. One must be here somewhere.”

“Well, he’s not a wizard anymore,” Sam stubbornly observed.

“What was that, dear?” The Balrog scooped Sam up before he understood what was happening. He found himself clinging in mortal terror to a vast claw a hundred feet above the ground. “Sorry, couldn’t here you.”

“I said, he’s not a wizard anymore,” said Sam through chattering teeth. “Saruman, I mean.”

The Balrog’s nose crinkled. “Hmmph. Ex- or no, they’re drawn to the Bearer like wargs to a lamb, aren’t they.” She sniffed in Saruman’s direction. “Curunír, you old cesspool! Long time no see!” She looked around. “Naughty lad! Making rude hand gestures to the Prime Directive again, are we?” She stared at him and leaned close, sniffing ever more distastefully. “Why ARE you wearing that tacky sheet? And what in Arda have you done to your face? Has Saurrotten’s influence turned your brain to orc spittle, dear?”

“He had help,” Frodo observed, looked out through the massive claws at a very discomfited ex-wizard. “Harrowing the Shire, I mean.”

Carefully the balrog set Frodo and Sam down in the weed-choked front garden. “You mean those scurrying beetle-creatures?” Seeing the way of things, Saruman’s ruffians had broken from hiding and were tearing away in all directions. She reached out, snatched up two of them and brought them kicking and screaming to her face. “What’s wrong with you people?” she demanded of them. “Old Curunír Void-Bait has an energy field ripe as a pile of dead maggots! I know you’re only mortals, but really, a cold lump of p’hoi-hoi could smell that!” She plunked them down unceremoniously, shaking her head. They lay there groaning. She glared down at them. “Boo!” They scrambled up and took off, running for all they were worth. No one ever saw them again.

The balrog turned her full attention to Saruman once more. “As for you, mud-face––”

“Roggie-dear,” said Frodo, “I appreciate the thought, but I think it best that I deal with this fellow, seeing it’s my corner of the world he’s mucked up here.”

The Balrog regarded him thoughtfully. “Yes. I believe you’re right. I can see you’re up to it; you glow like one of Varda’s lamps! All right, love; deal with him as you see fit.” Her fire-pit eyes blazed. “I’LL deal with him after.”

Saruman’s blotchy face turned purple. “Now, see here!––”

“Oh, come off it, Curunír,” sighed the balrog. “I’ve known you since we were fresh notes in the Song. You always had such a splendid voice; everybody would be charmed out of their skulls when you would sing ‘Robe of Many Colors’, twanging that banjo of yours––”

“Leave the banjo out of this!” Saruman yelped.

“At least Olorín had sense enough to play dulcimer,” the balrog countered. “You used to be such a fine fellow, you and that lovely voice...well, you’ve quite let yourself go to pot, and no amount of frippery will change that.” She gave him a critical eye. “Though I can see you’ve done your worst trying. Hmmph! You just listen to my sweet Frodo and do as you’re told now, and no foolishness, or I’ve a mind to step on you and take my chances with the front office later!”

Pippin tapped the balrog’s enormous taloned foot. “What’s a banjo?”

“Saruman,” sighed Frodo. “Gather up your nail glazes and peroxide. You’re leaving the Shire and you aren’t coming back.”

“Can’t we kill him?” asked Merry, gripping his sword. “Oh pleeeease? Can’t we can’t we can’t we???”

“No, no and no!” said Frodo. “I don’t believe in killing. It’s horrible karma, it’s disgusting, it’s messy, we don’t really have the right to kill a Maia––even if we COULD kill a Maia, which I doubt, considering how things happened with Gandalf––and anyway, Merry; do you really want to be remembered for killing a chap dressed in iridescent sheets with his beard in curlers and glittery pastel crebain tattoed on his cheekbone?”

“Hmmmm.” Merry frowned and sheathed his sword.

Saruman glared at Frodo. He looked torn between hatred, respect, and the definite onset of a reaction to the masque. “You’ve grown, Halfling––figuratively, that is, unlike those cousins of yours who look more like dwarves now than Hobbits––”

“We do NOT!” bellowed Merry, hand on hilt, having to be restrained by his paragon-of-virtue cousin yet again.

“Anyway, Ring-bearer,” sniffed Saruman, “you’re wise and bloody cruel into the bargain, depriving me of my last little pleasures in life.” He looked around at his salons and parlors and cheap jewelry shacks. “Where else can I go to get my nails buffed, my hair textured, my teeth bleached––”

Sam raised his hand. “Um, you could try Lothló––”

Frodo popped a hand over his mouth. “Lothlo! that’s a village rather like Bree except it’s north of the Shire, about 30 miles beyond the Northfarthing line. Loads of hairdressers and nail-buffers up there. They’re further north; they have to take particular care of themselves, you know, because of the cold––”

“Nice place!” Merry added helpfully.

“Lothlo?” said Pippin.

“I don’t like cold,” muttered Wormtongue. “It makes my nose run worse than ever.”

“Well, you don’t have to go,” said Frodo reasonably. “If not for Saruman you probably would never have come here...and you really ought to get a good shampoo. It certainly helped Aragorn.”

“Rubbish!” snarled Saruman. “I need this slavering miscreant; otherwise how will I ever get all those tangles out of the back of my hair? Find a coat and get moving, Worm!”

“I can’t wear a Hobbit coat!” whined Wormtongue. “I’ll get sick, I know it, all cold and icky, we’ll be soaked through, I’ll catch something awful and die a horrible death––”

“Then, again, maybe Wormtongue CAN stay!” muttered Saruman. His eyes shifted, gleaming with malevolence. Suddenly he grabbed a pair of shears, seized Frodo and teased the Hobbit’s abundant dark locks with the open blades, cackling insanely. “I’ll just take these pretty curls along instead!”

Gigantic claws nipped him by the collar and hoisted him, giving him a little shake. Frodo dropped away, unharmed, as did the shears, as Saruman was lifted high in the air.

“Isn’t that just like you!” sniffed the balrog, holding the struggling ex-wizard before her face with a disgusted expression. “Frodo gives you leave to get out of here with your pasty skin intact and all you can do is try to relieve him of those gorgeous curls. –All right, Frodo darling; you’ve had your shot at him. Now it’s my turn.”

Sam, Merry and Pippin settled into salon chairs and grabbed bags of popcorn, enthusiastically settling in to watch.

“What will you do with him?” asked Frodo.

“First, let me tell you my really great news!” said the balrog happily. Saruman dangled from her claws high above them, waving his arms, his eyes bulging, mouth moving but no sound escaping at all. She got onto her knees and leaned forward, absently jiggling him about as if he was a toy. “I’ve heard from Lord Manwë! Well, all right, not from Manwë himself, from Ulmo’s lass Uinen, but it’s the same thing. He wants me to come home!”

“Home!” gasped Frodo. “Valinor?!”

“Yes!” squealed the balrog, bouncing back on her heels with excitement. The whole land shook. “All is forgiven, and I’m to come home as soon as I can!”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” cried Frodo. “That’s why you’re here!”

“Well, not entirely why I’m HERE,” said the balrog coyly. “I stopped off first to see you again before I go. You’re my friend, after all! You helped me, Frodo!”

“I did? How?”

“Saurmilk’s tacky little Ring!” the balrog chortled. “You trusted me, and I helped you get rid of It! You’re the talk of the Undying Lands, sweetie––and so am I, because I helped you!”

“Wait.” Frodo studied her. “The ship. How will you fit on the ship?”

The balrog’s laughter startled dozens of ruffians out of hiding and onto the road. “Oh, that’s too much! Ship? Darling, if I so much as set my paw in one it would capsize!”

“But if you can’t take ship, how will you get there?”

The balrog stood up and straightened proudly to her full height. There were many cricks in many Hobbit necks the following day. She folded her arms and preened a bit, cocking her head this way and that, as something huge began to unfold behind her.

“Ah!” said Merry. “I guess THAT question is answered.”

The balrog, glancing left to right, waved her massive smoking wings gently in the breeze. “Granted, I had to practice with them––hard to fly about in those caverns!––but now I’m quite toned enough for long-distance flight. Gwaihir and I have already talked about having flying races! What fun!”

Saruman finally found his voice. “You lie, you overgrown matchstick! The Powers will blast you into vapor before They ever––”

“And I won’t be going alone,” said the balrog ominously.

Only Merry saw Pippin fidget and study his toes.

The balrog brought Saruman close to her face again. He squeaked and hid his own. “Too bad I’ll have such repellant company––I’d much rather be traveling with you again, sweet Frodo!––but They’ve asked a favor of me, and I won’t disappoint Them!” She gave Saruman a shake. “These adorable little Hobbits shouldn’t have to deal with the likes of you, Curunír––no, that creepy-crawly task belongs to greater than ourselves. I’m to take you back for judgment! Come along quietly, now, or I’ll squeeze you into lava!”

The Hobbits watched in amazement and no little admiration as their unlikely ally tossed Saruman into the air and deftly caught him, closing her fist on him just enough to make him shout. The Shire heard his outraged (and terrified) screams all the way to Michel Delving.

The balrog knelt again. Frodo climbed aboard her free paw and was brought eye-level with her.

“This is it, love. I’m on my way. Be good––oh, what am I saying? How could you be anything but!” She sniffed. “See you around––on your way from Mandos into Overheaven, I should think. Then perhaps you and I can have flying races!”

Frodo gave one claw a big hug. “I’ll hold you to that, Roggie dear. Thanks for everything! Good luck with Saruman!”

Saruman bellowed something unrepeatable. The balrog gave him another shake, which quieted him right down.
She set Frodo on the ground and touched his cheek with her claw, heaving a sigh.

“All right,” she said firmly. “All Little Folk and Big, stand clear. These wings create a lot of wind when they get going. Farewell, friends!”

“Wait!” cried Frodo, remembering. “I don’t know your name! What’s your name?”

The balrog was crouching like an enormous cat getting ready to pounce. “Tell you when you get there!” she said, breathless with excitement and tension.

Frodo and all the others dropped to the ground and hugged it tight, straining to watch at the same time. “But––” Frodo yelled.

Wind whistled, whipping cosmetic sponges and loose earring backs through the air as the balrog sprang up and away, her massive smoky wings cutting majestically through the clouds. Soon her eardrum-bruising rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and Saruman’s accompanying crazed shrieks faded into the West.

Everyone rose. With a whoop the Hobbits began celebrating their liberation, swirling around the four Travelers, kicking over manicure tables and pelting each other with handfuls of masque for joy. Music started up all at once and jigs broke out everywhere.

A line of Hobbits tried to snare Frodo into the rumba, but he resisted, looking into the sky and wiping a sleeve over his eyes. “Oh, well. ‘Roggie’ she is, then. I’m so glad for her! Getting to go home! Just like we did.” He looked around and scowled. “More or less.”

“Oh!” cried the comely Hobbit lass, seizing Frodo’s maimed left hand. She held and stroked it gently. “Someone trimmed you a bit too close, hero. You poor handsome darling!” Frodo’s vision fogged when she planted a soft kiss on the scar. “Here, just come right over here, sit down and let me rub some nice soothing oils into your poor hand!”

“Well, I could....”

“Don’t worry, cousin!” cried Merry, well, merrily. “We’ll be fine without you for awhile. We’ll be along to save you directly.”

“Um...not TOO directly, right?” called Frodo as the giggling lass led him away.

Merry’s snicker faded as he surveyed the salon chairs which dotted the earth right down to the Water. “...Well, probably not. Drat this mess. I wonder if we could hire some oliphaunts from Harad?”

“Can I go now?” asked Wormtongue, checking his wristdial. “No offense, but everything here is too little––the people, the houses, the furniture, the dishes, the hankies...and I’m due for a facial peel in ten minutes.”

Merry managed not to observe aloud how desperately Wormtongue needed the treatment. “Go on, then. Once you’ve helped us set this place to rights, you can take whatever of this garbage you’d like and leave.”

Sam gestured to the clippers and buffers and blow-dryers and body jewelry. “Mayhap you could start a salon in Bree. Seems I remember that lot needing all the help they can get.”

“He’d scare away the customers the moment they saw him,” muttered Merry.

“I heard that!” griped Wormtongue. “But that’s an intriguing thought, Master Gamgee. I even sort-of appreciate it. Honest work, eh? Hmmm.... Perhaps if we load up a couple of can keep all the rest and do what you like with it. Meanwhile, if it’s okay with you, I need to peel out. Get it? ‘Peel’ out? for my peel!? Hoo, boy, I crack myself up!”

“‘Cracked’ is right,” grunted Merry. He looked to his right and his eyes bulged. “Oy! Pippin Took, what in the name of Yavanna’s toadstools have you done to yourself?”

Pippin’s skin was a variegated swirl of browns and oranges. “Merry, what’s ‘self-tanner’?”

*dialogue straight from the Prof’s pen

The End