Although most attending the feast sat on benches, Frodo and Sam were given heavily cushioned chairs to sit on. The scent of the food brought to the tables was overwhelmingly tantalizing at the same time it seemed foreign and even repugnant after their weeks of privation. They’d been given some food already--soft bread, a little fruit, watered wine. The scent of roasted beef and fowl was almost too much to bear, and Frodo found himself feeling almost nauseous.
Yet the plate they brought him had but a little on it--a bowl of broth, sauce of apples, curds and whey, again soft bread but with no butter--not that this bread needed butter, really; apple juice, a very small serving of chicken, again a small amount of watered wine. He’d been given a similar plate at the feast in Rivendell when he awoke, although at that time he’d not really cared; and after an hour’s time as they continued to sit still at the table they’d brought him more. This time, however, he felt insulted. He’d only barely missed dying again, and supposedly the feast was in his honor; yet they served him an invalid’s rations? He’d not eaten properly for almost a month--he was hungry and wanted food--lots and lots of food. Even if he didn’t really want to eat it, realized at a practical level of his being that he couldn’t bear more than he’d been given, he still wanted a bounty of food to be placed before him and Sam. He wanted the reassurance he and Sam would never want for food again.
Iorhael--be practical. You and Sam are not the only ones receiving light meals and soft foods. Look about you--that soldier with the bandaged jaw--he’s getting only broth, while that one over there with his belly wrapped is receiving the same. They are feeding thousands here, and have had to bring meat or cattle here from the other side of the River. Would you deny someone else the food you wish to have before you--food that you could not eat anyway--just to satisfy your own pride?
Then his attention drifted away somehow. Gandalf sat by him, urged him to eat what he could, to teach his belly to accept more than lembas. He smiled up distractedly, managed to swallow some more, then sat back. His shoulder ached, and he automatically rubbed at it. Someone spoke to him, and although he anwered back and must be saying the right things as no one was giving him odd looks, yet he afterwards couldn’t remember anything about the conversation at table.
Then the meal was apparently over, and he was standing up. Sam saw the small lurch he gave as he almost lost his balance again, put his arm about him to keep him from falling--but in such a way others didn’t realize how weak he was. Frodo was both grateful and resentful. Why did Sam feel the need to hide Frodo’s weakness? Was he watching him so closely? Did he think he had to do everything for Frodo and keep up the illusion Frodo was just fine? And why couldn’t he just be well? Aragorn was the King, and had the Healing Hands and all--why hadn’t he been able to just heal him completely?
Someone in greens and browns over mail was speaking to him, and he couldn’t remember for the life of him who it was--king of somewhere, he thought; horses or something--well, the horses were rather obvious, worked into the leather hauberk over his mail, decorating the hilt of the sword he carried, on the buckle of his belt and stitched onto the banner behind his chair--even appearing in the heraldry of his crown! He tried to be polite, nodded sagely, then excused himself and tried to slip away....
There were too many people about him, too many conversations, too many eyes watching every move he made, too many thinking he was special--or ignoring him--or undervaluing him. He wanted away--needed to be away. Why couldn’t he just be allowed to be alone?
And yet, the thought of being alone terrified him, too. For too long he’d been kept isolated by the Ring--even in the cavern of Henneth Annun, surrounded as he’d been by Captain Faramir’s Men and with ever Sam by his side, he’d yet felt alone. At the end it had been himself and the Ring, the Ring constantly ravishing his own mind.
Somehow Aragorn came to be by him, and he felt such relief as the King looked down into his eyes, placed his hands upon his shoulders, knelt to hold him close in embrace. And, as he experienced that embrace he felt safe as he’d not felt safe for a very long time.
Oh, my brother--how I longed for you to be with me! It was all for you, and I am so glad it was accomplished for your sake!
And he heard Aragorn whispering, “Oh, Frodo--we couldn’t be certain which way you’d gone--not at first! You fled--you fled from one danger into a thousand others! I would have gone with you--and yet, if I’d done so, in the end It would most likely have taken me as it did Boromir.”
Frodo pulled away enough to look into the Man’s face, and saw there the tears that filled his eyes, slid unheeded down his cheeks. “You should not weep for my sake,” he murmured.
“But why not? What you have endured, Frodo--it ought not to have happened to anyone, but particularly not to you!” Aragorn pulled him close again, sought to give back the feeling of comfort and safety and ease. Frodo felt the healing warmth of the King’s touch fill him, relaxed in it, slipped to the edge of rest again.
All too soon Aragorn had to leave him again to take up his duties as host. But at least Frodo wasn’t expected to rejoin the throng--he and Sam were taken to a place where they could hear the river, smell the wonderful odor of growing things after ages, it felt, of the odor of ash and decay and poisonous fumes. Merry and Pippin were released from their duties, were there in their uniforms to talk and comfort; Legolas and Gimli were there to guard and explain, Gandalf staying near at hand to watch that it wasn’t all too much.
Sam was still excited, was wanting answers, and was kept busy wanting to know it all and to understand the unprecedented growth of Merry and Pippin. And all were glad when at last Gandalf made them return to their beds, even Pippin.
But in the night Frodo awoke, clutching at his shoulder, breathing deeply, his dreams disturbed. He and Sam weren’t alone--Gandalf sat nearby, a goblet of wine at hand. Immediately he was up and leaning over Frodo, his hand on Frodo’s temple.
“What is it, Iorhael?”
“The Eye--I dreamt of the Eye!”
“And your shoulder?”
“It ached--as if the Black Rider were overhead on his terrible beast again.”
“Neither exists any more, Frodo.”
“I know--but the memory is still there--for that at least!”
“For other things it’s gone?”
“Yes.” He lay still for some minutes. “I barely remember from after we left the Crossroads. Some moments--others I don’t remember.”
“For now it is probably as well you don’t.” The Wizard’s face was intent.
“Why am I still alive, Gandalf?” Even Frodo could hear the plaintive tone in the question, and was ashamed of it.
The Wizard sighed, and gently brushed his hair back from his forehead with his hand. “You gave up almost everything, Frodo, to accomplish your quest--and more was wrested from you by the Ring and Sauron’s will. We cannot restore your innocence--as with virginity, once it is gone, that remains gone. But we can hope for the healing of your spirit, and for you to be able to know joy once more. Know this, Iorhael--” he leaned over the Hobbit’s bed, “--you deserve to know joy once more, full and unstinted. You were created to know joy before you pass through the Gates.”
Frodo could feel his face burning. “And so, I can remain a virgin, but not know the innocence that goes with that state?” He felt also the fury such could be true burn in him.
Again the Wizard sighed. “Frodo--virginity and innocence are independent states. You can lose the one without loss of the other.”
Frodo looked away, up at the swaying branches over the open top of their surrounding walls, fixing his gaze on a single star which could barely be seen beyond them. Finally he asked, his voice low and tight, “Why am I still a virgin, then?”
“Since the Ring came to you, before you knew what it was, have you desired any Hobbit lass?”
Frodo felt himself shaking. “I don’t know,” he said finally, in such a low tone even he had difficulty hearing it.
“That isn’t quite true, is it?” Gandalf’s tone was not accusatory, but sad.
He finally wrenched his eyes back from the star to the Wizard’s gaze. “What do you know about it?”
But Gandalf was looking on him with deep compassion in his eyes, and Frodo couldn’t keep the anger as a shield any more, found himself weeping, weeping for his loss. The Wizard sat himself on Frodo’s bed and lifted him up to lie against his chest, simply holding him, letting him know he wasn’t alone.
Finally the weeping stilled. Frodo leaned against Gandalf’s robes, breathing in the scents of wood and water and stone, pipeweed and its smoke, the scent of horseflesh. He was surprised when he heard himself whisper, “Did the Ring geld me, Gandalf?”
“You know it did not--not quite.”
“Then why couldn’t I see how lovely a lass was any more without----”
Gandalf finally prompted, “Without what, child?”
Frodo swallowed. “Why couldn’t I see how lovely a lass was without--without wanting to--wanting to take her by force?”
“Did you ever know such thoughts before the Ring came to you?”
“Can you remember what it was like in any of those times when the Ring took you, when it sought to make you reveal yourself?”
After a pause he whispered, “Yes.”
“Were any of the times you were tempted to take a lass by force like that?”
After a longer pause and much thought, he admitted, “Yes, every time.”
“What did you do when such thoughts filled you? How did you feel?”
“I was shocked. I told myself No! I didn’t know what could have come over me!” He leaned back to look into Gandalf’s eyes. “Was that the Ring doing that, then?”
“What have you learned of the Enemy’s nature through your experience with the Ring?”
Frodo was shaking again, and the Wizard held him to his breast tightly. At last Frodo said, “He sought to dominate.”
“Even so, Frodo.”
“You mean, the Ring sought to make me--to make me like him?”
The Wizard didn’t respond, knowing Frodo already knew the answer only too well. He let his veilings slip some, let his own Light surround the two of them, let it drive away the shadows of fear and self-blame--for a time at least. And the Hobbit in his arms sighed, relaxed at long last, drifted finally back into sleep, the former coldness in his shoulder driven out for a time.