A Tale of Waking
At that moment one of the younger Guardsmen approached them. “My Lord King,” he said with a respectful bow, “they tell us the meal is ready. If you will return to the head table?”
“Thank you, Lasgon,” the King said, rising gracefully and giving a stretch. “My Lord Thain, my Lady Eglantine,” he said with a deep bow, and he turned back to the tall table set out for the Big Folk.
“You are Lasgon?” asked Eglantine of the youth as he started to turn to follow the King. “It is an honor to meet you. Pippin remembers you happily.”
“Thank you, Mistress,” the young Man answered. “Serving the Pheriannath after their return was a great honor and joy.” He gave them a profound bow and followed his lord back to the high table.
All became silent as the King took his place beside the Queen, then those of Gondor and many of the Hobbits turned to the West for the Standing Silence. After a moment thus, all turned back to the King, who gave a deep bow. “We who are your guests this evening thank you for your hospitality, folk of the Shire,” he said, and all the Big Folk followed the lead of their King.
The Mayor, who’d taken part in the Standing Silence himself for the first time, bowed in return. “It is little enough we can do, Sire, after all you and your people have done over the years in protecting the Shire for so long, and after sending our lads back to us again when we feared they were lost to us. Until your folk went South to fight at your side we had little idea what those we saw in grey and green with the Stars on their shoulders meant to the safety of our land. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
Several of those who stood by the King in the garb of Arnor smiled and straightened. One looked to the King for permission to speak, then said, “That you appreciate our watch is more than thanks enough, small masters. Certainly those of your folk who have come out of your land have given far more than any could have dreamed to the outer world over the years, and especially the four who came forth to aid in the final fight with the Nameless One. All of Middle Earth owes the Shire a great debt that perhaps can never be repaid for that one.”
The meal was a merry one, and Esmeralda and Eglantine both noted that what Pippin had said was true--their guests did not eat as much as Hobbits did, and were done before their hosts. As they waited for their hosts to finish eating, the King and Queen began to sing a walking song that Bilbo had written of the joys of walking through the Shire, and several in the company joined in. That was followed by Pippin starting a marching song from Gondor, in which several from the high table joined, including the King himself. Then, as folk were beginning to look to one another, Sam began to sing. His voice was not clear and beautiful as was Pippin’s, nor as sweet as had been Frodo’s. Yet it was warm and comforting, although the melody told of great loss and grief. The song he sang was one only a few of those present had ever heard before, and afterward Aragorn asked, “How did you come to know the words to that song, Sam?”
Sam looked up at him solemnly. “I found the words in the papers as he had in his clothes chest, Strider. He’d done his best to member them after we was in Minas Tirith, and had Legolas help him with those words as he didn’t member hisself. I don’t think as I’ll ever forget the melody, them singing it in Lothlorien.”
“No, I don’t think I’ll forget it, either. May I get a copy of the words from you?”
“I’ll send it South in my next letter, sir.”
“I’ve never heard it before,” Lord Halladan said. “It is of Olórin?”
“It was the lament for Gandalf that was sung after he fell from the Bridge of Khazad-dum,” the King said quietly. “I’d never thought to hear it sung so beautifully by Sam.” He smiled. “So, Frodo remembered most of the words, did he?”
Legolas nodded. “He asked me one day to help him get them written down, although he remembered almost all of them himself. I was constantly amazed how much Sindarin and Quenyan he actually knew and understood. He was so quiet there in Lothlorien that I’d had no idea he had understood the song and much of the conversation he heard about him as well as he did.”
Master Saradoc asked, “How did you learn that walking song, my Lord?”
Aragorn laughed. “Whenever I was able to take time to visit the Last Homely House, Bilbo would insist on me helping him with his translations. I think that there were simply times when he needed to speak with another mortal. He taught me that song and many others, and together we wrote several more. Also he’d tell me stories of the Shire, of his family and friends and the doings of his lad and all.”
The King was aware of a tug on his tunic, and looked down into the eyes of Elanor and Frodo-Lad. He reached down and pulled the two of them up onto his lap. “Thank you, my Lord Mr. Strider,” Elanor said.
“And what can I do for the two of you?” he asked, offering her and her brother each a candied strawberry that sat still on his plate.
“Would you tell us a story?” she asked.
“A story? What kind of story did you want?”
“How you called our Sam-Dad and Uncle Frodo back.”
Startled by this request, Aragorn looked across at Sam, whose face had gone quite red with embarrassment. He looked back into the face of the small lass sitting on his knee. “And what brought on the interest in this story?” he asked.
“Master Ruvemir was asking Sam-Dad about it, and he said as only you would member it proper.”
“Only I would remember it properly, then? It’s a very intense story, my lady Elanor.”
“I’d really like to know, sir.”
He looked at her closely for quite some time, then said, “Very well, then.” He straightened some and looked into the distance, marshaling his memories of that time. Finally he began to speak, and all within the pavilion quieted to listen.
“The battle was appearing to go badly. Sauron had released almost all of his troops on us, orcs and trolls and wargs, Men from Harad and Rhun. They came from all sides, from the tops of the ridges, up from hidden tunnels in the sides of the mountains, out of trenches cut across the land before the Black Gate. A great troll was leading the assault on the other hill from the one from which we fought. Suddenly the Eagles arrived, attacking the beasts on which the Nazgul rode. Then--then suddenly we felt the darkness settle as the Ring took the Ringbearer, followed by the lightening of our hearts as It was taken from him and Gollum fell with It into the heart of the Mountain.
“The fall of Barad-dur was the most awesome sight any of us had ever seen. We watched as the armies of Mordor, deprived of the guidance of their fell Master, fled away into the wilderness, and as all signs of the might of Mordor were swallowed up by the earth itself, glad at the last to be relieved of the ponderous weight of his ambition and pride. Then the shadow of Sauron himself reared up, crowned with the lightning, dark as anguish, and whether it showed defiance or supplication to the West we could not tell. Either way, the Valar rejected it utterly, sending a great West wind to blow it to naught.
“Only then,” he continued, his voice going quiet and very, very gentle, “did we begin to think what this meant to them, to your father and your Uncle Frodo, there across Mordor, most likely still within Mount Doom, where we could see the volcano erupting, throwing great balls of molten rock into the air. How could they hope to survive that?”
He sighed. “Then,” he said, his voice rising some, “I felt Frodo at my shoulder, looking anxiously. ‘It is done, then? In spite of me?’ I seemed to hear him ask. I looked over my shoulder at him, saw his face, pale and shadowed with pain, making certain all was at last at an end. I started to answer him, realized the vision was fading. I looked up the hill where Gandalf stood, looking down at me, and realized he’d seen what I’d seen, your Uncle Frodo not just as a Hobbit, but as a taller figure, looking to see he’d accomplished his task. Gandalf raised his hands, called out, and Gwaihir the Windlord, Lord of the great Eagles, stooped to him. They spoke, and Gandalf gave a great leap astride the Eagle’s neck, and followed swiftly by two more they flew as fast as the wind itself to the mountain, hoping against hope to find them.
“We watched after them, but could not watch long, for the Men Sauron had brought from Rhun and Harad still faced us, and unlike the orcs and trolls who fled when Sauron’s will failed them, they stood ready still to fight, their anguish at this final betrayal by Sauron’s very nature making them even more fierce and dangerous. We could not afford to look off to the South longer.”
He bowed his head. “It is probably as well we had the fighting to do, or we would have gone mad with worry for your father and your Uncle Frodo.” He straightened. “But then--then things began to change. Suddenly down the hill came Moritum of Rhun, carrying a section cut from his burnoose as a flag of truce, calling out, ‘We yield us! We yield us!’ Others, realizing we would not assault those who surrendered properly, began to throw down their weapons as well.
“Then--then I was almost knocked over by a nudge from behind, as Shadowfax, Gandalf’s horse, came back to the battlefield and claimed my attention. Suddenly Elladan was there at my side, telling me I must mount Shadowfax and let him take me where I must go, that Gandalf had found--had found your father and your uncle, that they needed my aid, and needed it now. He helped me mount, for I was desperately tired, and I called out to Prince Imrahil and Halladan to take over the ordering of those upon the field, and let Shadowfax carry me away.
“We’d left the wagons that had followed the army and those healers who did not carry weapons just beyond the westward bulge of the walls of Mordor, just inside the northern reaches of Ithilien. Gandalf had the Eagles bearing him and the burdens to come there. I arrived just after them. A small fire had been lit, and they had both cold water and water heating gathered, clean and pure, and they had a variety of herbs and unguents--and one of the healers, knowing I used athelas, had found some growing near the ruins of one of the settlements, and had culled leaves for me.” He looked deeply into the child’s eyes. “And I needed them, Elanor; I needed them desperately for the two of them.”
He looked at the table where Sam sat, his own head down, his face still. Sam looked up into Aragorn’s eyes for a few minutes, then dropped his gaze again. At last the King continued. “Your dad was desperately thin by then. They’d had little to eat since they left the rest of the Fellowship at Amon Hen. They had found little water once they entered Mordor, and most of what they did find was unhealthy. They’d been badly treated, and had been breathing the fumes of the Mountain for a long time. He had countless cuts and abrasions, and some burns from where ash from the mountain had lit on his skin. He was unconscious, and his breathing was labored. He was at the point of death.”
Again he went still, and looked again at where Sam sat, studiously examining his own hands. Finally he said, “Your Sam-Dad was almost dead, Elanor; but your Uncle Frodo was in far worse condition.” There was another pause. “I could barely find a hint of a heartbeat, and we were uncertain whether he was still breathing. He was covered with ash and filth and caked blood from his many wounds. His right hand where his finger had been bitten off was still seeping blood and fluids, was caked with blood almost baked onto it by the heat of the molten rock surrounding the hillock where they’d taken refuge at the last. He was little more than bones covered by fragile skin and countless wounds, most of which had not begun to heal properly for he’d had no clean water or proper food or rest for far too long. The place where the spider had bitten him on the back of the neck was open and had plainly been draining of poison and infection. There were weals on his back, his legs, his side, where whips had been used on him. There were places where he’d fallen on rocks, and where hot ashes from the mountain had fallen on him. There was the indication that where he’d been stabbed before by the Morgul knife had become inflamed and had undoubtedly been excrutiatingly painful. He had a large patch on his chest where the Ring had lain that appeared to be burned, and he had finger marks on his throat from where Gollum had tried to throttle him one last time. And where the chain had been about his neck....” He shook his head, his face filled with grief and pity.
Sam looked up at him again, his face sharing the grief and the pain expressed by the King. Aragorn and he looked deeply into one another’s eyes. “They brought me basins of boiling water, and I set the athelas leaves to steep and sang the invocation over them, let my fingers feel deep, realized both were fading away, were very far already on the way to the Halls of Waiting. I called after, but they were too far at first to respond. I had to go after them.”
He looked at Faramir, and smiled gently. “Only one other I had ever sought had been as far as the Gates of Death, and he turned easily at them, heard my call, turned, came back. This time--no. Frodo was unwilling to turn, kept moving slowly toward them. I called again. I know he heard, but he would not turn. Your father turned, but would not allow Frodo to go on alone. Had Frodo actually moved through the Gates, he would have gone with him that he be not alone. I set more athelas to steep for him, washed his body, returned to the search and the calling. The Gates were open for him, but he’d stopped and turned, but not, I realized, for my sake. Something else had stopped his journey, something he expected. The scent of the athelas this time was strongly of the sea, fresh and clean, the salt spray, the water on the shore. I think he waited the wash of the waves over him, would have given himself to them gladly--I hope for cleansing. But when he turned he beheld me, and your father was there at his side, encouraging him to go back. And we held a debate there, there before the Gates of Death.
“Then, suddenly, he looked on me, and began to come back....”
He gave a deep, prolonged sigh. It was some moments before he again took up the tale. “Yet their hold on life was tenuous at best, for their bodies were very weak. That of your uncle was so fragile we could do very little for him for several days save to clean it and very gently rub unguents into it to freshen and soothe the skin, and gently give him small amounts of water and broths and medicinal teas every quarter mark to strengthen him. He could have tolerated no solid food at all. And throughout your father would not leave him, would not awaken before him, would not allow him to feel alone. I kept Frodo deep in healing sleep, but needed to do little for your father, for his spirit kept watch on Frodo’s throughout. Only when Frodo began to waken on his own did your father finally give over the watch and truly sleep himself, giving over the memories.
“Finally Frodo awoke, and for a time spoke with Gandalf. What they spoke of I do not know, for I was not there. At last he dozed again, and then your father awoke, trying vainly to convince himself once more he was but a simple Hobbit, and then your uncle also woke again, feeling, for the moment, almost restored.”
He looked deeply into the eyes of the child. “Does that answer your questions about the calling back, Elanor?”
She nodded, her face very characteristic of her father’s at that moment. She looked down. “Then, that is why he had to go away?” she finally asked, looking back into his eyes.
“His body was weakening, and his spirit as well. It was only with the greatest of difficulty he could speak of that which bothered him--that was ever true of him, whether it was a worry of the heart or the pain of his body. He would not have lived long at all had he lingered.”
“But he is happy now.”
He smiled. “Yes, he appears to be happy now, Elanor. He could not find that healing here, but there the Valar themselves can at least approach him, and he can be wrapped in the mantle of their love and caring. He is lonely at times for us, I think, which is in part why he spends so much time there beneath the White Tree. But he no longer knows the pain and isolation.”
“I’m glad,” she whispered quietly.
“So am I glad, beloved,” he answered.
The meal was over, and many were taking their plates and cups to the waiting tubs for cleansing, and the King himself knelt by one of them to help for a time in the washing up. The Mayor of the Shire looked on him with amazement.
“You would wash dishes?” he asked.
The King laughed. “I have done little of need and use for many days, Master Whitfoot. It is not good for anyone to convince himself that he is above the work that needs to be done.” Then he looked down at the plate which he was cleaning. “And at times the hands need employment when the spirit has relived grief,” he added softly.
Will nodded. “I knew--knew he’d been badly hurt, but had no idea it was like that. I had no idea he’d been so very close to death, that his body was so badly weakened.”
The King looked at him keenly. “His spirit was even worse bruised. The Ring sought to deprive him of every vestige of joy and pleasure, to wrest his very soul from him. It sought to convince him that his defiance of Its will and Sauron’s will were what caused every grief of which he became aware. He felt personally responsible for the forces of Saruman coming here and invading the Shire, for your capture and imprisonment and that of the others. He felt personally responsible for the death of Boromir on Amon Hen and the capture and torture Merry and Pippin felt as Saruman’s Uruk-hai carried them across Rohan back toward Isengard. He felt personally responsible for the assault on Rohan by Saruman’s forces and the siege of Minas Tirith, for the coming of the Nazgul, the pains of the least foot soldier on both sides. His very gifts were being used against him by the Ring.”
The Thain, who’d approached during this interchange, asked, “The Elvish titles--what do they mean?”
“Cormacolindor means Ringbearer. Bronwe athan Harthad means Endurance beyond Hope. He had no hope left at the last.”
“And Sam’s title?”
“Hope Unquenchable.” The King Elessar resumed his scouring of plates, cups, and utensils.
The Thain and Mayor looked back across the pavilion where Sam sat with the small princess and Rosie-Lass on his lap, the Queen seated on the grass beside him, both laughing at something being said, Rosie sitting beside her husband, her arm protectively over his shoulder. Near them sat the hound Gwynhumara, Elanor and Cyclamen stroking her sides. Will finally asked, “How could he bear to come back to us after what he’d been through? How could either of them come back?”
The King shook his head as he set another plate in the tub of rinse water. “They are Hobbits, and stubborn ones at that. And there was need for both of them here. Only when he was certain Sam could take up the responsibilities and he knew the Shire was healing from its injuries did Frodo go, did he finally accept the healing he, too, needed.” The Thain was taking dishes out of the rinse tub and starting to dry them, and Will was beginning to stack them. Others were watching with awe and shock as the King, the Mayor, and the Thain washed dishes and talked.