For Linda, who issued the challenge; and for Lily_the_Hobbit, Cairistiona, Ellynn_Ithilwen, ArmarielRozita, LilyBaggins, Ansostuff, and Ysilme for their birthdays.
The bearded man in grey with the cane that appeared to have been made of ivory asked, “Can you trust me, Mr. Gibbs?”
Leroy Jethro Gibbs grimaced. “Just Gibbs is enough, Mr. Greyhame. As Director Vance has told me I must trust you, and as our Secretary of the Navy says the same, do I have any choice in the matter?”
Mr. Greyhame gave a smile that at one and the same time appeared both apologetic and not-so-secretly amused. “No,” he said, “I suppose that you do not. I am sorry to tell you that I must first blindfold you.” He brought out a dark, variegated scarf that appeared to be of fine silk with a lace extending each way from what must be the top edge. “Would you like to examine it first?”
Gibbs held it up, noting that the weave was so close that little if any light would penetrate it. “It’s soft,” he commented.
“Yes,” agreed Greyhame. “These were woven to be both practical and comfortable.” He held out his hand to accept its return. “You are greatly honored—this was last worn as a blindfold by one for whom we have the greatest respect. He was not required to wear such a thing at the time, but suggested that he, too, should do so in order to avert what could have been a—nasty diplomatic incident, as I understand you term such situations. If you would turn, please.”
“But it was not primarily designed as a blindfold, however,” Gibbs observed, turning as directed.
Greyhame had rolled the lower half, but was now fan-folding the rest. “Indeed not. These face scarves are worn by the Rangers of the southern region of the place to where we are going, so as not to show sufficient of their faces for enemies to easily recognize that men lie in wait for them. I will be placing this over your eyes now. It may help you to close them first.” He laid the rolled and folded fabric in place and brought the laces all the way around to tie the ends at the back of Gibbs’s head.
“Where are we going?” Gibbs asked.
“Nowhere you have heard of before, I fear.”
“May I ask the nature of our mission?”
“We are going to see to it that the stories told in the future fit the circumstances as much as is possible.” Now, that was an interesting mission! Greyhame continued, “This weapon of yours—it will not cause harm in its current condition?”
“It’s designed not to fire as long as the safety is engaged.” Gibbs held out his arms and his sniper rifle was laid in them with what he sensed was a good deal of suspicion. He shifted his grip and felt for the safety lever, and held it so hopefully his companion would have a good view of it. “This is the safety. In this position the rifle is not supposed to fire, while if it is in this position it is ready for service. However, as anything mechanical can malfunction, we always treat our weapons with a good deal of respect.” So saying, he flicked the safety back to the proper position, and slung the rifle by its sling across his back. “We carry the rifle with the muzzle aimed either up in the air or down toward the ground except when we are preparing to use it.”
“And this—garb you wear—it is designed to make it harder for an enemy to see you as you lie in wait, then?” he was asked.
“When we get there I will put branches and leaves from local plants into the webbing of my helmet so as to help me blend more successfully into the area and to make me more invisible to the eyes of others,” Gibbs explained.
“Considering the mode of transportation we will be using, it would perhaps be better should I carry your weapon while we are in motion, then.” Greyhame’s voice was full of consideration. “It would be perhaps too easy for that lever to be accidentally dislodged by Landroval, and with it aimed upwards he might unwittingly be injured or possibly even killed. And that would not be a particularly good event. How would it be best that I hold it?”
“Keep your hands on the wood and the muzzle aimed away from anything you don’t wish to shoot, and all should be okay,” Gibbs said. He didn’t like the idea of letting someone else hold his weapon, but again, what choice did he have? “Why the blindfold?” he asked as he reluctantly relinquished his weapon to his companion.
“It is more for your comfort than for secrecy, actually. We have found that traveling the—route—we will use tends to cause some people to become terribly unwell or unmanned, and we should not wish to cause you to vomit or grow paralyzed with terror so that once you arrive you will not be able to do what is needful. Would it bother you to have your body gripped about so that for a time you shall not be able to move your arms?”
Not be able to move my arms? Now, that was an unusual question, Gibbs thought. He thought of the pods on the skids of many rescue helicopters they’d used during the Korean conflict. They were necessarily narrow, and the patient for the most part could not move at all once he was strapped in. Perhaps that was how he would travel. “I don’t think it should cause much difficulty,” he said uncertainly.
“That will be good.”
They heard the cry of an eagle in the distance. “Aha! But here comes Landroval now!”
Gibbs heard nothing for several minutes, and then what sounded like the beats of very large wings and then a solid sound as if a very large body had settled down on the ground nearby, a sound more felt than heard, actually. He smelled something that he did not recognize but that still seemed somehow familiar. Greyhame spoke in a language Gibbs did not understand at all, and he heard the name “Landroval” repeated a few times. The responses sounded—unusual—yes, very, very unusual. They were definitely words in the same language used by Greyhame, but he could not tell what kind of instrument they were spoken through. Has this Landroval lost his vocal cords? Gibbs wondered. Was he speaking through some kind of voice enhancement device? It certainly had a different tone to it than he’d ever heard before! And was that laughter?
“I must climb up now. Here—please hold the weapon so that I might do so unencumbered.”
Gibbs reached out and had the rifle pressed properly into his hands, muzzle up. He checked and noted that the safety was still set, and nodded, encouraged. He could hear sounds that indicated the other man was apparently scrambling up, but onto or into what he could not tell. There was more talk between Greyhame and this odd-sounding Landroval, and at last Greyhame called down from above him, “Now, hand me the weapon, wood first.”
Gibbs reversed the rifle to present the stock and lifted it, and felt it pulled upwards out of his hands.
“Good! And the lever is as you showed it to me. All is well. Now, put your arms straight down with the palms to the side of your legs, and lean as much as you can to—”
There were directions from Landroval’s unusual voice, and Greyhame continued, “Lean as much as you can to your right. Yes, like that. Landroval says he can now take your torso. Do not fear, Mr. Gibbs. He will then lift up and take your legs. Keep them together if you can. Do not fear. He will be very gentle. He is experienced at this. Keep your legs together as you are lifted upwards, and all will continue to be well.”
Something closed about his torso, at first squeezing tightly, and he felt a distinct pull upwards. At the same time he felt a tremendous movement of air, although it certainly did not feel like the wash of a helicopter. Then something was reaching for his legs, and wrapping itself around them. The grip on his chest relaxed once his legs were secured, and he realized he was being lifted up, off the ground, as whatever it was that gripped him rose in the air. The grip on his chest shifted, and he realized he was being repositioned from sideways to lying on his back within whatever it was that held his chest and legs, that whatever the tubular things that held him were, they were capable of changing the angle at which he was being held. He was being brought somehow forward as well as up, and the strangely familiar smell grew stronger; and then he realized he was being drawn up out of the wind, up against something—something alive! Something warm and soft—and feathery! He felt himself being pressed against the warm body of what appeared to be an impossibly great bird, or so it felt to be, and he could feel, almost hear, the beating of a great heart above him.
For a moment he heard bits of a conversation between this Landroval and Mr. Greyhame, the man’s voice distant while that of Landroval seemed to come from the bird itself. But there is no bird so large! he thought. Then there was something like humming—or humming with words he could not understand but that appeared to touch him at a deep level.
He felt his body relax, and he drifted into a deep sleep….
“Mr. Gibbs? It is time to awaken!”
Gibbs slowly opened his eyes, wondering where he might be. He lay along the shadowed eaves of a wood on one side, with a large, open field on the other. Somehow the greens of the foliage of the evergreens and oaks seemed more intense than he’d seen before, and the air was sweet and wholesome, in spite of wood fires in the distance. As he sat up, aided by Greyhame, he examined all about him. It felt almost as if he were in one of the northwestern states, although he could not remember oak trees being that common in either Washington or Oregon. Was he in Great Britain, then? No, that could not be true, not with woods this thick and with such ancient trees! Then where was he?
“Where’s your friend Landroval?” he asked as he stood up, relieved to find his legs capable of supporting him.
“He left once he was assured you had taken no hurt from the journey,” Greyhame said. “He’s gone in search of Strider so as to send him in this direction.”
The grey-clad man held out Gibbs’s rifle, which the former Marine examined closely. The safety was still set properly, and he could not see any signs that it had suffered any mishandling. He opened the breech to assure himself the chamber was empty, and felt in the leg pockets of his trousers for his ammunition bag. Still there! “So, may I know the details of the mission now?”
Greyhame shrugged his shoulders. “It is a simple matter, but also a rather delicate one. We are making certain that certain tales of a particular time will come about as they are told. Within a few hours two groups are going to be meeting here in this cleared area, one of citizens of this land, and the other of invaders so coarse, vicious, and ugly as to be unbelievable by your standards. One of the locals is to charge the leader of the invaders wielding a club, and with it he is to strike off the leader’s head. Except that, in spite of his unusual height, by Hobbit standards, that is, there is no realistic way in which this can be done. The invaders are certainly not particularly large, either, but they still would tower over even Bandobras Took were he not mounted upon a horse! Plus, although they are not known for being particularly intelligent, they are famous for being extraordinarily hard-headed and difficult to kill.
“In short, our local hero needs some—discreet—aid if the head of his enemy is indeed to separate from the body as he swings his club at it. All you need do is to shoot it in the neck just as Bandobras swings his club.”
“So, this is why you need a sniper?”
The older man gave a smile. “Indeed, this is so.”
Gibbs could barely credit what he’d been told. “I wouldn’t exactly consider a sniper rifle particularly discreet,” he pointed out. “First of all a silencer would hamper its accuracy, so everyone would hear the shot and realize someone besides this—local hero of yours was involved in the killing of the invader. Not, of course, that I even brought a silencer with me.”
Greyhame gave a short laugh. “No one within the Shire would have the least idea of what could make the noise your weapon emits, my friend. None here is familiar with—rifles of any sort. You will see that the local defenders will be armed with slings, hand catapults, hunting bows, clubs, and stones. Indeed, throughout this continent explosive powders are in remarkably short supply and have been used in warfare most sparingly, and then used more to confuse the enemy than in any practical manner intended to efficiently kill others. They are barely used even in mining activities. And as I have been their primary user and with them I almost exclusively create fireworks, and especially since I’ve not done an exhibition of my fireworks within two hundred miles of this place in living memory, no one will have any idea at all that Bandobras didn’t behead the creature unaided.
“Plus,” he added, “you will be up there, on that slope, quite far away, and the blast will thus be sufficiently distant as to make it difficult for those present to necessarily realize it had anything to do with the loss of Golfimbul’s head. Also, at the time of Bandobras’s charge both invaders and defenders will be yelling so loudly as to make it even harder for anyone to even hear the shot.”
“So, you want me to shoot him in the neck? Back at the spine?”
“Okay! I can do that! But I don’t understand why me!”
Greyhame sighed. “You have to understand, Mr. Gibbs, that in this place and time there are no weapons such as yours. I understand well enough how it works—no one better within Arda, perhaps, save of course Aulë himself. But at this time there are no weapons that use explosive powders as propellants.”
“So there’s nobody who could shoot this guy from a distance and make it look like this Bando-person knocked his head off?”
“Again, correct. Oh, several people could kill him at a distance—even Strider could. Certainly we could have brought in Legolas to do so if necessary. But an arrow would give the whole thing away.
“It’s all the fault of the good Professor,” Greyhame continued with a degree of sadness. “You see, when he started this tale, he was still looking to entertain his children. Children love bloody deeds such as heads being stricken off terrible creatures by a single blow from a club wielded by much smaller defenders. But it doesn’t do well when the physical laws of the greater work to follow are closer to those in reality. So, we began to play the scene out and it just didn’t work. And when I took the problem to the conclave of Wizards, Ponder Stibbons ran the question through HEX and it was suggested we bring you into the Shire to—well, to help the whole thing work out properly without the Hobbits realizing that dear Bandobras couldn’t truly do what he is supposed to have done.”
Gibbs shook his head. He still didn’t have any idea of where on earth he was or why he was among people who didn’t know about rifles or firearms of any sort, but he’d been told off by Vance to come here and help, and help he would. Maybe he’d ask McGee to explain when he returned to Washington—somehow he was sure that his geeky agent would appreciate what this might be all about, although there was a good chance he, Gibbs, wouldn’t understand an explanation any better from Tim than he did from Greyhame.
“Has he agreed to assist, Gandalf?” asked someone at Gibbs’s elbow. The NCIS agent jumped—no one should be able to sneak up on him in any manner!
Mr. Greyhame gave Gibbs another smile that was half apology, half amusement, turning his attention then to the newcomer, an exceptionally tall man clad in well-worn leather garments that had once been dyed a rich green, his hair shoulder length, a dark brown near to black threaded with silver at the temples.
An officer, Gibbs knew immediately from the man’s stance. Quite a high officer by the looks of him.
“Good to see you at last, Hir Strider. Where did you leave the invaders?” Greyhame asked the newcomer.
“About forty minutes by a Dwarf-made clock northeast of here,” the man answered. He was examining Gibbs’s camouflage garb. “Interesting—patterns dyed into the cloth to make it appear to be leaves!” He asked Gibbs directly, “Is it effective?”
“As effective as that scarf he used on me as a blindfold.”
Greyhame retrieved said scarf from his pocket. “Faramir gave it to me before I left the White City as a memento. It was used last as a blindfold on the Cormacolindo.”
“Ah! I still have the one given me when I served his grandfather—Arwen was intrigued by the pattern of the weaving and how the threads were spun of different colors, similar to the threads her grandmother used in the weaving of the cloaks we received in Lórien. The spinners of Gondor gained her respect as a result of that scarf.”
“High praise from the Lady’s granddaughter,” the grey-clad man commented dryly. “So, Strider, where are they most likely to enter the clearing?”
Strider pointed. “From the near side of those trees. Too many brambles on the far side.”
“And the Tooks will most likely enter from there.” Greyhame indicated a wide track on the southern side of the clearing. “Bandy, at least, will be mounted. He’s riding the horse of a Ranger that’s being treated by one of his healers.”
“Do I know him?”
“The Ranger? No—long before your grandfather’s time, child.”
“Perhaps I should look in, just to see that he’s doing well.”
“Perhaps you might, but not before the fight. Now, where would be best for this one and his weapon?”
In moments Strider was leading Gibbs up the hillside Greyhame had indicated earlier. “How much might you need to loft your weapon so that its stone properly hits the target?” Strider asked.
Gibbs had been watching Strider with growing respect as he noted how surely yet carefully he set his feet so as to cause as little displacement as possible for the surrounding grass and foliage. Only an exceptional tracker would be able to follow this man’s trail, and Gibbs wondered if he’d be able to do so if he’d not been following so closely in this Strider’s footsteps. “I don’t need to loft my rifle—merely to aim it. With a rifle it’s not anywhere as important to allow for wind as it would be with a bow and arrow, although one does need sometimes to do some compensating. I take it you use a bow.”
“Yes, and I am considered quite good, although I am no real competition for either of my brothers or Legolas, of course; and even Faramir is better than I with a bow. Although I can best Faramir quite regularly with a blade for all his skill; and I have been known to beat both my brothers. Although I have to admit they best me as often as I do them—or perhaps more often. But to be able to best them at all is quite the feat in itself. I was never truly able to beat Glorfindel, although he admitted I gave him a good workout on more than one occasion.” All of this was said with good humor.
“You certainly know how to hide your tracks.”
“When one is trained by those who trained me, one learns to do so automatically.”
“You’re the best I’ve seen in years, and the only one I know who did better was an Apache who was part of my unit in Iraq.”
Strider paused and looked back. “My brothers would be honored to meet him, then, or so I’d think,” he commented. He looked around, then turned to look back at the glade below them. “We still have somewhat short of half a mark before the goblins arrive. They will come from that direction. They will do little to hide their arrival. Goblins are not known for subtlety. Their advantage is usually due to lack of care for their own safety and the sheer viciousness of their assaults. Their leaders are usually the largest individuals within the colony, so you will be able to recognize Golfimbul fairly easily. He is a good head and a half taller than most of his warriors, and the others will be doing their best to stay out of his way as much as possible. They will be armed mostly with clubs and crude long knives and short swords. Why in Middle Earth they’ve decided to attack the Shire no one seems to know, but they have. Perhaps the Witch-king has thought on some of the prophecies that the ones to destroy him and his Master will come from the banks of the Baranduin; or it may simply be that they’ve heard that food is plentiful within the Shire. The weather near the feet of the mountains where the goblins live has been exceptionally dry this year, so food has been as sparse for the goblins as for others who reside near to the passes.”
It did not take long for Gibbs to break up the shape of his helmet so as to make it hard to detect, using grass and those plants that grew close to the ground upon the hillside as well as a sprig from an oak tree. Strider smiled as he recognized the intent of Gibbs’s actions, and in moments he melted into the bushes and trees behind Gibbs’s position. The former Marine pulled a clip out of his ammunition bag, and at last lay down, glad he’d chosen one of his older and more faded camouflage outfits to wear today as it would be harder to detect from a distance. He loaded his rifle, and checked his sites. He could see the clearing easily from his location, and as he peered through the scope he saw movement on the edges of the cleared field below. He realized that the defenders must already be moving into their own positions, although he found he could not count how many there might be. He saw only a handful clearly, one of whom appeared to be wordlessly directing others where to take cover. He smiled. He was certain that the invaders would be taken by surprise.
He could feel the approach of the enemy before he could actually hear them: a low rumble of the ground as if many, many heavily shod feet tromped closer and closer, and not in the cadence of a march. He found he didn’t approve of what passed for discipline or training with the approaching troops, for as they came nearer he could hear whines and squeals that were most unprofessional for any trained force. As verbal squabbles between individual attackers became more readily recognizable, he found himself wondering just whether this army had any training at all! Then all went quiet—or almost quiet, for there were repetitions of Shhh! and You, there! before the invaders went completely silent. Still, was that slavering he heard?! A deeper, more incredulous part of his mind thought, And just when did I ever even think of the word slavering, much less use it?
He did not understand the order to attack, for it was uttered in a foreign language he’d never heard before, one that sounded particularly uncouth and guttural. But there were defiant cries from the hidden invaders before they streamed into view. He swiftly realized that when Greyhame described them as coarse, vicious, and ugly he was not exaggerating. As they poured into the open field they were indeed as ugly a bunch as he’d ever seen, and as they engaged those defending the field they proved vicious as well. But how was he to tell his specific target in this roiling mass of—well, it could not truly be described as humanity!
And then he saw what must be Golfimbul, and as described by Strider, he was indeed a good head and shoulders taller than those who fought under him! And ugly! Never had Gibbs seen such an ugly creature walking on two feet and carrying a sword! And toward him atop a finely contoured horse with a rather shaggy red-brown coat rode his opponent, a rather round figure somewhat too small for the horse he rode topped with a face that must be usually jolly in countenance, but that now shone with a desperate determination as it held aloft its only weapon.
“A shillelagh?” Gibbs asked aloud. “He’s attacking that beast with a shillelagh?”
He readied his rifle and took careful aim, tracking the moving creature that now was focused on the rider. He could hear the cries from the battle below, and saw as the great form of the—had they indeed called this a goblin?—saw the goblin raise its dark-bladed sword, and then the shillelagh was being brought forward, and at just the right moment Gibbs squeezed the trigger…
…Just as the rider brought its shillelagh forward to connect its heavy grip with the goblin’s head!
The goblin’s head leapt from the body as if with a life of its own, and flew through the air. Gibbs, tracking it through the scope of his rifle, watched as it headed to a place where a rabbit, which had stood statue-still, frozen with the shock of watching this great battle, suddenly saw that head was coming toward it. Galvanized into action by this direct threat to itself, the rabbit turned and fled in great leaps, finally bounding down a rather large hole, with the goblin’s head following it immediately afterwards.
There had been a sudden cessation in the noise of the battle, and as he lowered the rifle he could see that almost everyone who’d been fighting had turned to see the head of Golfimbul disappear after the poor, feckless rabbit, down the rabbit hole. “It wasn’t white, carrying a pocket watch, at least,” Gibbs murmured, a feeling of unreality washing over him.
At that moment a flight of arrows arched over the battle, falling like deadly rain on those goblins at the back, and there were cries of pain and alarm where they fell, and those goblins who’d been involved in the immediate fight turned to watch those they’d expected to reinforce them falling, each impaled by a short but still deadly bolt from above, and the invaders were now definitely disheartened. A few on the sides were now beginning to retreat, flowing around those goblins that had fallen to the arrows, and others were beginning to pull away from the fight as well, following their bestial brethren as they joined what swiftly proved a full rout. The defenders came after, racing after the one of their own who was mounted. That one was barely managing to stay seated on his horse, although now and then he was able to use that club of his to good purpose as several more goblins were cracked over the head with it.
And then, as swiftly as it had begun the battle was over, and he saw those defenders who were armed with bows stepping out of their hiding places, shouting and cheering and dancing with delight! Soon enough the others of their fellows began returning, with the mounted one returning last. He sought to dismount from the great steed he’d been riding, and did so clumsily, falling rather heavily onto his rear end. But no one seemed to think this a particularly inelegant means of reaching the ground once more, for they crowded about him and lifted him to their shoulders, one of them taking up the shillelagh and waving it triumphantly about as they all cheered and began singing—unfortunately apparently each singing a different song, considering what Gibbs could hear at this distance. There were muffled cries from the one who’d been atop the horse until at last they set him on his feet, and he realized that this one was also decidedly taller than his fellows, although he indeed did not appear to be as tall as those he’d faced during the fight. He was now directing the defenders to search amongst those still lying upon the ground, and they were quick to begin separating their fallen comrades from the dark-skinned invaders. The tall one led what appeared to be a ragged line of farmers, bending over those of the goblins who lay there, now each producing knives from pockets and using them to cut the throats of any goblin they found still breathing.
“That’s one troop of yrch that won’t be bothering anyone else for quite some time,” breathed Strider, who’d materialized soundlessly at Gibbs’s shoulder. “Considering that Hobbits usually don’t wield anything more threatening than a stone they intend to throw at creatures invading their fields and gardens, they have done well, don’t you think?”
The two men shared a smile before Strider gave a summoning gesture of his head and led Gibbs about the top of the hill to a place where they were hidden from the sight of any of those who’d taken an active part in the battle.
Strider was unusually tall, although well proportioned from what Gibbs could see, and he certainly knew how to move both undetected and leaving little if any trail behind him, as Gibbs had noted earlier. He would be the one to follow, Gibbs decided, in any warfare within this area. They now descended the hillside, still leaving as little sign of their passage as possible, until they came to an open glade where Greyhame awaited them accompanied by a second, far smaller figure who carried—a tray? Where had this one come from, and why was he carrying a tray of what appeared to be refreshments, way out here in what appeared to be unsettled lands?
“Lady Vairë appears to think as you all deserve a good cup of tea,” the small one said, “although she directed as Mr. Gibbs here would prefer that.” With an uncertain nod of his head he indicated a large paper cup that was so familiar to Gibbs, apparently having come from his favorite coffee shop near the Navy Yard. “Seems t’be coffee, but I’d say as it’s strong enough to strip paint off’n the shutters of any hole as I’ve seen throughout the Shire.
“That was as good a shot as I’ve ever seen, and that’s a fact!” the small fellow added to Gibbs. “So that’s how it was done, eh?” he asked Greyhame. “I’d begun questionin’ the Bullroarer story once we begun encounterin’ orcs ourselves, you know.”
“Yes, that was how it was done, Sam,” Greyhame responded with what appeared to be affectionate pleasure, beaming down at the small, curly haired fellow beside him.
Sam nodded, turning his attention to the taller fellow. “Good t’see you again, Strider. Although I’m certain as your lady wife is all upset as you’d come out again in those old green leathers once more.”
Strider laughed. “These have always been my preferred garments when wandering the wilds of the north, and you know it, my beloved Lord Perhael! And thank the Lady Vairë when you return to her side again for her thoughtfulness.”
He breathed deeply, his eyes closing with pleasure. “How wonderful to breathe the fragrant air of the Shire once more,” he murmured with appreciation. “But now we’d best return to our own places and times, supposing we wish to remain undetected by Bandobras’s people. They’d think little enough of you, of course, Sam. But we who appear to be Men would draw unwanted suspicion on Bandobras’s famed accomplishment, don’t you agree?”
He drew back, gave a most respectful and graceful bow, and vanished once more into the foliage surrounding the glade, and when he turned Gibbs noted that Sam, who was looking after the tall Man with a good deal of affection, was smiling and surreptitiously wiping away what appeared to be a tear, his tray tucked under his other arm. “There’s just no one else quite like our Lord Strider,” the small person commented in a low voice. “Ain’t that true, Gandalf?”
Greyhame nodded. “True enough, Samwise Gamgee. Now, off with you back to the Lady, and thank her and her spouse for allowing you to join us this day. And I will see Mr. Gibbs here returned back to his own place as well.”
Gibbs awoke lying down, although he lay not on the soft grass of a cleared field as had happened the last time, but now on clean sheets on a bed. He could hear the soft beeps of equipment about him, and realized that once more he was lying in a hospital room, hooked up to a variety of monitors of several sorts, his left hand temporarily immobilized to keep him from compromising the IV line on the underarm there.
“Boss, are you awake?”
He turned his head to see Tim McGee rising from the visitor’s chair, setting aside the large, heavy book he’d been reading. “Yes,” he rasped, remembering it wasn’t that long ago that they’d removed his ventilator. “All going well at the Yard?”
“Yes. Tony and Bishop are finishing up the paperwork from the investigation of you being shot this last time. You really need to start wearing your vest more often, Boss. It was a very close thing this time.”
“It’s always a close thing,” Gibbs growled. After a moment of thought he added, “But I don’t regret giving that kid a chance.”
Tim held his tongue, his mouth twitching wryly.
“Got some coffee?” Gibbs asked.
“They told me I’m only allowed to give you water or juice for right now,” Tim said apologetically, and he retrieved a plastic cup with one of those corrugated plastic straws hospitals seemed to favor, holding it so Gibbs could take a sip. Apple juice this time, he realized.
“What you reading?” Gibbs asked as Tim replaced the cup on a bedside tray.
“I’m not sure why, but I brought my copy of The Lord of the Rings this time,” Tim answered. “My sister spilled a Coke on my old paperback copy I’d had since I was at MIT last time she visited, so she sent it to me for Christmas. It’s the illustrated edition printed up for Tolkien’s centennial celebration.”
Gibbs considered, and at last asked, “You been reading that aloud to me while I was asleep?”
Tim flushed as he shrugged. “Doc said that you might benefit from hearing things read to you. You don’t mind, do you?” After a moment he added, “I was reading the description of Rohan and Edoras as Gandalf led Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to the confrontation with Wormtongue and Théoden after they left the eaves of Fangorn Forest.”
Gibbs had caught the trilogy on TV a few times, or at least parts of it. Was that what had fueled his peculiar dream, he wondered? But still he had that unfamiliar name in mind. “You know anyone named Landroval?” he asked.
“Landroval?” Tim seemed confused. He started to shake his head, then paused, a memory obviously hitting him. “Oh, yeah, in the last volume, considering the way the story is usually divided up. He’s in the movie, too, but they don’t give his name there. He’s----”
He stopped, his attention fixed on something in the corner. “Boss!” he said, his attitude becoming serious and professional. “What is that doing here?”
Gibbs turned his head. Leaning against the corner, stood up on its stock, was his sniper rifle. And on the windowsill sat his helmet, with oak leaves and grass caught in its webbing.