A Winter of Discontent
“Ow! Please, leave off, Sam! It hurts so!”
“You have to stay still, Frodo, so I can look at it.”
“But you are pressing on it! Ow!” Frodo pulled his head away from Sam’s probing fingers.
“I swear, Mr. Frodo, I never touched it!” The gardener looked into his master’s face with frustration.
“Well, wherever you touched, it’s as sore as a boil!”
“That’s because it is a boil--two of them, one for each of the holes. It’s swollen all around them.”
Frodo was as frustrated as Sam, started to lean back in his chair and pulled forward again with pain. “I don’t understand it. Every other time it’s just opened and drained.”
“Well, the skin seems thicker over it somehow, so it’s not draining this time.”
“One good thing,” Frodo said as he unbuttoned his shirt the rest of the way so Sam could pull it further down, “at least it’s not ruining another shirt this time.”
“About the only good thing this time,” Sam muttered. “I don’t understand as why it keeps opening up and draining anyways.”
“Budgie said it might be because whatever clamped into me had dirt or something on it, and it’s lodged down in there and the infection keeps coming back around it. I can’t seem to convince him that it was a spider, though--doesn’t seem willing to believe in things he’s not seen.”
“Well, considering where that spider lived and as what she was eating afore she thought to try Hobbit, any kind of filth could be in there, I suppose. Now, let me look, and I swear I’m doing my best not to hurt it more. If you can just sit still now....”
“All I can do is try, Sam.” He leaned forward obediently.
Trying valiantly not to touch the skin, Sam lifted the dark curls from the nape of the neck out of the way so he could see. It looked not a whit better this time. “It needs to be drained, Mr. Frodo.”
“How will we manage that then?”
“I could send for Drolan----”
“Well, for Budgie Smallfoot, then. You already know as he’s seen it.”
“I couldn’t bear it, Sam. It was bad enough last time, opening when it did.”
“Well, we have to do something!”
“Let’s try compresses to see if we can get it to open on its own.”
Sam went off to the kitchen to get some water boiling and clean rags to soak in it. Rosie sat on the settle in the corner stirring batter for the cake she was making. She looked up in question.
“It’s where the spider bit him--gone to boils, it has. He won’t have no healer.”
She sighed. “He’s a stubborn one at times.”
“Yes, I know. Followed that stubbornness across Middle Earth once, and now it’s settled firm into the hole here.”
“It explains why he couldn’t sit still at the banquet, though.”
There had been a banquet the previous evening at Michel Delving honoring Frodo and Sam for stepping in as they had when the Mayor was ill. Frodo had not wanted to go, of course, thought Sam, and had needed to be coaxed and then bullied by Merry and Pippin, who had come to stay at Bag End the last couple nights and who had been gone but an hour when Frodo called to Sam to come look at his neck. Frodo had been somewhat fretful for most of a week, and now Sam felt he knew why. With something that big building up, he must be most uncomfortable. He’d checked the bite several times since early December, but it had shown no signs of its bimonthly drainage--until now. But this last week, what with the cousins coming and the banquet to look forward to and Yule coming up and Rosie’s pregnancy, there’d been no time to think of it, much less check it. The banquet had gone well enough, although Frodo’s discomfort was visible to all. Sam had thought all of a sudden maybe his master was coming up all dissembling again; but it appeared the problem this time was physical.
As he searched for appropriate rags to use as compresses, he found himself wishing Merry and Pippin had stayed a bit longer. They could do to help hold their cousin down while he cleaned the thing, he knew. Ah, well, no use wishin’ for what one can’t have, he thought.
Once the water was boiling he poured it into a basin, pulled a leaf of athelas out of the special packet he’d devised to keep them somewhat fresh during the winter, and whispering the invocation he rolled it between his fingers and dropped it into the water. “Can you get me some extra pillows, dearling?” he asked. “He’ll need to lie on his chest, and he’ll need supporting so as he can breathe.”
Rosie had risen to pour the batter into its pans. “It will take a few moments, love, but I’ll bring them.” He paused to kiss the back of her neck, smiled at her, then with a sigh settled the cloths over his arm and took up the basin to bear it back to Mr. Frodo’s room.
“We’ll do as we can, Mr. Frodo,” he said.
Frodo had removed his shirt and the padded silk garment he’d begun wearing under it, the one Gandalf had brought him to wear under the Dwarf mail in place of the leather shirt which had gone missing in Mordor. He sat on the edge of his chair, as close to the warmth of the fire as possible, yet he was shivering.
“It would be best to do this with you lying face down on the bed. Rosie’s coming to bring pillows.”
Alarmed, Frodo shook his head. “I don’t want her to see this!” he protested. Sam knew Frodo meant the scars on his back from the orc whips as much as the boils on his neck, which looked even larger than they had before.
“I’ll take them from her at the door,” sighed Sam, wishing Frodo’s unwillingness to share his physical condition weren’t quite so advanced as it was. Once more he found himself wondering how Budgie Smallfoot had managed to be able to clean it the last time. He set the basin on the other chair and brought it near Frodo’s face, and as the athelas worked its soothing he could see Frodo begin to lose some of the agitation which had been growing over the last few weeks. Feeling a bit of relief himself, he walked out to take the pillows from Rosie, who was coming down the passage with them.
“Can I help?” she asked, knowing the answer already.
“No, he’s having nothin’ doing with it,” Sam replied. “Doesn’t want you to see.”
“I see yours, you know. I have an idea what they looks like.”
Sam shook his head. “I know, and you know, and he knows; but he still don’t want no one to see if he can manage it. You go on back to the kitchen or the parlor, sit down and put your feet up.” She nodded, gave him a peck on the cheek, and headed for the kitchen. Sam watched after with love, then took the pillows back into the room.
Frodo was leaning over the steam of the basin, his eyes closed, his face calmer. The scar high on his shoulder was red and irritated tonight, and he was holding the Queen’s jewel. Sam arranged the pillows on the bed, then came forward to gently lay his hand on the left shoulder, which felt cold. Frodo looked up at him and sighed, but rose obediently and went to lie on the bed. He spoke into the pillows, “This is one time I am truly glad not to be of the race of Men. To have to always fuss with shoes or boots before lying down....”
Sam brought the basin to set on the bedside table, and gently laid the first of the compresses into it. When he settled it on the raised lumps, however, Frodo gave a hiss of pain. After a few minutes Sam had to accept this was not going to work--it was too sensitive. “We could try a hot bath,” he suggested.
“You’ll have to lance it,” Frodo said.
Sam was alarmed. “I’ve never done such a thing!” he protested. “I’ll send for Drolan!”
“No.” Frodo’s response was said with finality. “It’s easy enough--Bilbo lanced the one I had on my side when I was twenty-eight.”
“But this one is in the neck, Mr. Frodo. I’ve already hurt you just trying to look at it.”
“I’ll have to bear it. I’ll sit backwards on my desk chair and hold on. You might be able to use one of Rosie’s sewing needles, although the thinnest paring knife might be better--get a better line to let more out of it at a time.”
Upset, but admitting this would probably be best, Sam went again to the kitchen, where he got the thinnest knife out of the drawer and the sharpening stone, and carefully prepared it for use. Rosie looked up with interest. “Going to lance it, then?” she asked.
“That’s what he wants, but I’ve never done such afore.”
“I have--Jollie’s always having them on his sit-down, and I’m the one as gets the honor of opening them.”
He looked at her. “He won’t want you doing it. He don’t want you to see the scars on his back or his shoulder.”
“Then we won’t tell him, will we? Not until it’s done.”
She fetched a sewing needle, and had Sam hold both knife and needle into the flames till they glowed. “You go in and turn the chair so as he can’t see me in the mirror, and I’ll come in quiet and actually lance it,” she said. He nodded.
Frodo was wrapped in a blanket when he went in, and Sam felt better about the plan. If he could cover the other scars with the blanket, he knew, once Frodo realized the ruse he’d at least feel better about it. “I don’t want you catching your death, Mr. Frodo, so I’ll just wrap that blanket around you some afore you sit down. Now, let me fix it so we can have lights on it....”
Once he had Frodo settled with his face to the far window and the curtains drawn so he wouldn’t see Rosie’s reflection in it, he pulled the bedside table behind Frodo and put several candles on it to provide better light. Then he said, “I’ll need to get another cloth--I’ll be gone but a moment.” He went to the door and opened it, and softly Rosie slipped in.
Good--he had his head pillowed on his forearms--so much the better. Sam gave Rosie the nod, and she approached. She managed to stifle the gasp of alarm as she saw the size of the lumps needing draining, lifted the needle, gently pierced the skin. Barely anything came out. She looked to her husband and shook her head. He handed her the knife and took the needle, and she took a deep breath and finally brought it to the reddened flesh. Frodo cried out, did his best not to flail, clutched hard at the chair. Sam immediately knelt before him, put his own hands over Frodo’s to steady him, and Rosie gave a shallow cut, then the second. She nodded, turning a bit white, and Sam rose to take over.
Frodo looked over his shoulder with consternation. “Rosie--no! Please--no!”
“She knows how to do this, Frodo, and I didn’t. Now, lass, off you go, for I can do it from here.”
She nodded and fled from the room. The pus roiled forth, dark and stinking, and Sam began to clean it away. Frodo was weeping. “I didn’t wish her to see!” he began whispering repeatedly.
“And what did she see?” Sam finally said with anger born of fear as he continued to clean the drainage away. The infection was worse this time--it had never stank like this before. “She’s done boils on her brother’s bare bottom, you know. This is little enough, and I’d covered up the rest of the scars.”
“But she ran away!”
“Frodo--she’s pregnant and often sick of the morning. She’s just opened the biggest boils as she’s ever seen, and they’re a ripe rotten pair at that, and it’s gone to her stomach. You don’t horrify her. Believe me, if my scars don’t horrify her, yours won’t neither. This stuff is pouring out, Master, and I mean pouring out. It’s as if it was building up for the whole time since the last drainage. And I will tell you as it stinks.”
It took well over a half an hour to clean away the pus, and then to clean the wounds and bandage them with a wet compress steeped in the athelas water over it. “I’ll have to change this in an hour for a dry one, and then check it through the night,” Sam said. “Now, I think as you ought to lie down and rest and I’ll get rid of this lot and check on my wife.”
Rosie had obviously lost her last meal, and was sitting wrapped in a shawl before the kitchen fire. “I’ve never seen such black pus in my life,” she said. “Is he angry at us?”
“Worried as he’s horrified you is all,” he sighed.
“Horrified me? Master Frodo?”
“Yes. He hates having his scars seen.”
Sam changed the dressing twice more during the night and then first thing in the morning. Frodo appeared at first breakfast with his eyes downcast as he fastened the cuffs of his shirt. He turned to Rosie but didn’t look at her. “I--I wanted to thank you for--for lancing the boils last night, Rosie. I’m grateful.”
“It was nothing, Master Frodo. I’ve been doing the ones my family come up with for many years, you know--Mum said as I had the gentlest and surest hands. Lot easier looking at the back of your neck than looking at Jollie’s sit-down.”
He gave a small smile and sat down. He didn’t eat much, and didn’t speak to either of them much for most of the day. When Sam came to check the dressing at noon and was able to drain some more away and cleaned it, Frodo simply thanked him and went back to his writing.
The following morning was much the same, and finally Rosie decided she needed to have a talk with him. While Sam was out taking out his concern on the woodpile, Rosie knocked at the study door. The call to come in was delayed, but it came. She entered and sat carefully on the sofa, looking at him earnestly. He turned to her, his expression subdued, but he was apparently willing to listen. Well, that was a beginning, at least.
“Master Frodo,” she said, “you and me--we need to talk. I know as you think as you were tricked night before last----”
“It’s not that,” he interrupted. “It’s just that--that I don’t want anyone to see them, is all. They are horrifying.”
“Your scars? Well, that’s what I want to talk about. Sam hates to show his, too.” He nodded. “But we married, and the night as we was married he come to me that first time, and I could tell as he was worried as to what I’d think of his. But he stood proud, cuz he knew he had nothin’ to be shamed of. I was--I was shocked, not cuz they was ugly, but cuz that beautiful Hobbit had been treated that way. And I’ll tell you something--I’m proud of his scars, for I know as how they was got.
“Now, you don’t like showing your scars, neither, and I don’t blame you. But I’ll tell you this--I’m proud of them cuz of him who bears them. I love you, Master Frodo--not as a lass loves a lad, but as a person loves another who’s worth the loving.”
He looked away, embarrassed. “I wonder,” he finally said, “if I’m that much worth the loving.”
Her anger flared. “Don’t you ever talk way that, Master Frodo--not to Sam, and not to me. We know better. You understand?”
He looked at her, surprised. She saw the depths of self-doubt in him, and tried to think of how to tell him how she felt. “I’ll admit I’ve been terrible angered at you from time to time, particularly when you disappeared, taking my Sam with you. But I know you is worth the loving, for Sam would never of gone off with you if you hadn’t been. I love the shining of him, and when he’s with you his shining is always brighter, cuz he’s catching the glow of yours.” She saw the surprise deepen. “Everyone as comes around you catches your shining, you know. You make things better, make folks better. Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin, when they come around--even they catch your glow, are lit by your Light. You bring out----” She sought to find the word, finally found it in the memory of stories she’d heard Frodo tell when she was young. “You bring out the nobility in them, Master Frodo. And I think as this new King of ours must have the same Light as you have, for when you or Sam or them speak of him, you all straighten, your faces shine, and your Lights shine the brighter.
“Never question, Master Frodo, that you are worthy of love. Never question. And you never have to be afeared of showing me your scars, for I know as how they was got, and I honor them.”
He was looking up at her, unable to think of what to say, and she smiled as she carefully got her body up and straight, then leaned over him to kiss his hair. As she gave him a last look as she closed the door behind her, she saw a look of longing and perhaps dawning hope in his eyes. She didn’t understand the longing, wasn’t certain what it was longing for; but she was glad to see the hope.
In ways Frodo was better as the winter continued, but in others he worsened. He was looking forward to the birth of Sam and Rosie’s first child, spoke longingly of when it would be born, when its brothers and sisters would follow. He spoke of how glad he would be to see all the bedrooms Bungo Baggins had dug for his hole filled with children, with life finally. He spoke of how he’d spoil them, how he’d tell them stories.
He walked into Hobbiton usually twice a week and did the lighter marketing. He spent a part of each morning in the garden, even on the coldest days. He wrote now almost obsessively. He would tell the children his stories, look at his young cousin Pando spying on him from the hedge and laugh.
But the nightmares were increasing in frequency. He often felt pain in the scar near his shoulder. His muscles were often sore when he awoke, as if he’d been climbing all through the night. And sometimes he’d feel that other pain in his chest, which at times would spread to his shoulder and arm. As much as possible he hid these from Sam and Rosie, but knew they were aware he wasn’t completely well.
In mid-March he sent Sam and Rosie to her parents’ farm for a week, telling them that this would most likely be the last time they’d be able to spend with the Cottons for a while, as the child would be born soon. Fredegar Bolger and Budgie Smallfoot stayed with Frodo while they were gone, and again Sam left Budgie with more of his leaves, took him aside, explained that this was a treatment the King himself had used, that Frodo appeared to respond well with it, asked him to give Frodo his tea, to use this in his bath if he was tense, to steep it for vapors if the nightmares got bad. Budgie nodded, but, Sam realized later, promised nothing. All he could do was hope Budgie followed through on his suggestions.
On the thirteenth of March Frodo didn’t get up at all, was delirious when Freddy and Budgie came in to find out why he hadn’t even risen for elevenses. He was obviously in pain, and the wound on the back of his neck was inflamed and drained incessantly. He clutched at his jewel and would calm down, would let go of it and be overwhelmed. He called to Sam to watch out, called for Gandalf, for Aragorn. He called out in Elvish. Finally, not knowing what else to do, Freddy went out and got Frodo some of Sam’s tea which had been left for him and fed it to him with Budgie watching beside him, frustrated that Freddy seemed to be buying into the superstition; then when Frodo began looking for something inside his nightshirt, Freddy saw the Phial of Galadriel lying on the table by the bed and gave him that to hold. Both were amazed when the light began to glow in its heart, shone through Frodo’s hand. With his left hand on the gem and the right one holding the Starglass, Frodo finally quieted, and after a time drifted into a true sleep.
“What is that?” asked Budgie in a whisper as they finally slipped out into the passage, assured the crisis was past.
“A gift from the Lady Galadriel, the queen of the land of Lothlorien,” Freddy told him. “She told him it is water from her fountain in which the light of Eärendil is caught. She said it was to be a light for him in dark places.”
“What kind of being is this Lady Galadriel?” the healer asked.
“The oldest of Elves in all of Middle Earth, I think,” he was told. Fredegar looked over his shoulder, back into the room where Frodo lay in a glow of light. “I think that must have been what he was carrying the day they rescued us from the Lockups. He had something in his hand that glowed, lit up the entire place. It was soothing, that light after all the darkness before.” He sighed. “Between the jewel he wears and the phial, he appears to be calmed considerably.”
Frodo woke that evening and drank some broth, asked for some of Sam’s tea. Budgie brought him some, still unwilling, but recognizing that if Frodo believed it did him good, denying it would be counterproductive. When asked if he knew what sparked the problem, Frodo murmured, “It was two years ago today Shelob poisoned me. It was worse this time than the last time.” He stretched his shoulders. “I seemed to be back there, there in her tunnel, running into the web she’d spun across the opening. I used the phial, could see the walls of the tunnel, the opening ahead. But you couldn’t really see her web--it was a web of shadows, but still you could touch it, feel it. I had to use Sting to cut it--Sam’s sword was no good.” He shook his head. “I ran forward, Sam behind. I was almost giddy with the happiness of getting out of the dark at last, ran toward the exit. I was drunk with fresh--well, fresher air, after the reek of her lair. But she came out of a side tunnel, right behind me, bit me. I remember the shock, the sudden numbness, starting to fall. Then, the next thing I remember was being in the orc tower, being tied too tightly to free my wrists. They’d stripped me naked, tied me up, were going through my things. Then--then they beat me. Wanted to know who and what I was, how I got there, where I came from, why I’d come. I couldn’t tell them--I was too sick. Then I realized--I realized It was gone, thought they’d taken It, that It was already on Its way back to Its Master. I wanted to die then, begged them to kill me and get it over with.” He was trembling.
Freddy sat and held his hand, and finally the trembling stopped. “I’ll be all right now, I think,” Frodo said. “Let me sleep again.” They left him, dimmed the lamp. But when Budgie checked on him again at midnight, he saw tears on Frodo’s lashes, although he still slept.
Frodo forbade them telling Sam and Rosie of the episode when they returned. “There’s nothing they can do,” he said, “and it will only tear Sam in two again, for he would do anything possible to assist me to feel better. But there is nothing anyone can do now. I was too badly hurt, too badly hurt for too long.”
Budgie had the feeling Frodo had the right of it, and did not discuss even with Fredegar his own estimation of Frodo’s condition--he thought his employer and friend was not yet ready for that news.
Frodo was at the door to greet them home, happy to see them. In the last week Rosie appeared to have grown immensely, and she happily explained to Frodo that the bairn was moving down, preparing for its coming. He glowed with happiness to see them, laughed at the stories Sam had to tell of Jollie’s and Nick’s doings, Young Tom and Marigold’s happiness, the new kittens who had finally made the way from their birthplace in the barn to examine the kitchen of the house, the ginger one that had attached itself to Rosie. And when they revealed this had come with them back to Bag End he greeted it with reserve but also a level of pleasure. Sam sighed to see he’d lost weight once again, in only a week. Some of the tea was gone, but not much.
The first two days Frodo tried to help, but there was a weakness in him that terrified Sam when he realized it was there. He slipped and burned his hand on the stove, so Sam hired his sister and another to help in the care of the house until Rosie’s confinement was over. He would make up a cup of his tea for Frodo and set it on Frodo’s desk as he wrote, only to realize the day that the labor started that they would find it cold, pour it out, and make him up a cup of regular tea instead, so he was getting little good out of it.
The labor that first time was exceedingly swift and even easy. By mid-afternoon the bairn was born, and it was a girl. A girl? They’d not even considered such an eventuality. The name they’d picked out was Frodo-Lad, of course. What on earth could they name this greatly beautiful gift they’d received first? All the names Sam could think of were foreign and odd-sounding when applied to a Hobbit-child. All the names Rosie could think of were mundane, and both agreed nowhere lovely enough for the golden-haired beauty. At last Sam went to the study to discuss it with his master, who, of course, knew the perfect name--a name that Sam knew, too, one which he’d not thought of though it grew now both outside Frodo’s window and atop the hill--Elanor. And when they brought tiny Elanor wrapped in the blanket sent by the King and Queen, one, Sam suspected, the Lady Arwen had woven herself using the techniques common to Lothlorien, Frodo shone to address her, gently stroked her cheek and head with one finger, crooned to her in Sindarin and Quenya, as if he could not fill his heart with enough of her.
It was then that Sam was suddenly hit with the truth of it--Frodo was not just staying decently out of the way while women’s business went on throughout the rest of the smial--he was lying down on the study sofa because he was too weak to return to his own room. He’d been so focused on Rosie and the coming bairn he’d not realized Frodo was ill. He’d been eating, hadn’t he? Sam wasn’t certain, for Marigold and the other help had not been warned to make certain he did. And when Sam checked the mug lying by Frodo’s hand and realized it was fresh and not the tea Sam himself had brought him earlier, he grew fearful. He exclaimed this was not fresh enough, which set Marigold, passing in the hall and who’d brought it to Frodo only a quarter hour before, angry. Sam took it swiftly to the kitchen, berating himself as a ninny-hammer and a few of his Gaffer’s other pet names, for not keeping closer watch on his master.
“Why did you say that tea isn’t fresh enough, Sam Gamgee?” demanded his sister. “I just brought it----”
“It’s not that it’s not fresh, Goldy,” he explained. “I’ve been brewing up special herbs as the King taught me about for him, to ease his heart. It’s as good cold as it is hot. There’s not a thing wrong with the tea as you brought him, save it’s not the herbs as he needs.”
“Oh. He is truly ill, then.”
He’d not thought of it in those terms, but he had to admit it now. “Yes, Marigold--he’s truly ill. I fear--” he swallowed “--I fear as he’s fading. Has been--has been since we got back.”
Now that he’d said it, he had to accept it, in the front of his mind as in the back of it. Marigold looked into her brother’s eyes, saw the depth of his grief, and reached out and held him as the water boiled, her own tears joining his. Once he had the fresh tea made he washed his face, brought a mug to his master and stood over him till he drank it. Frodo was humbly grateful for it, was obviously better for it, then finally rose and walked--slowly and too carefully--to his room and closed the door behind him.