A part of the army marched away that day, back south to the Crossroads and across the river to Gondor. Gimli watched after with approval. “That’s one lot off the hands of those who must bring food here, so far from where Men dwell. The orcs of the Mountains of Shadow left little enough in the way of game here--all I’ve seen have been a few rabbits and some squirrels, although last night some of the Rangers of Ithilien brought in a great buck.”
Sam smiled at the memory of stewed rabbit. “Leastwise there’s a fair variety of herbs here for cookin’ or just for heart’s ease.” He stretched. “I don’t think, Frodo, that we’re any too far from where I had my bit of a fire, when Gollum brought me those two conies and had such a fit when I stewed them. Wouldn’t help me find the herbs for them, though--no, not for Gollum, gettin’ his hands smellin’ of herbs.”
Frodo nodded, not speaking. Sam hadn’t yet appeared to notice how uncomfortable any mention of the miserable creature made him feel, and Frodo found himself just as glad this was true. Sam continued on, “I shouldn’t think we were any too far from that place Captain Faramir took us to, would you, Master?”
Frodo commented, “I’m not certain we’re supposed to speak of the place, Sam. After all, it’s a secret place for the Rangers to retreat to after an assault.”
Sam looked chastened. “That’s so, isn’t it, Mr. Frodo? After all--they was all set to kill....” But he saw the expression on Frodo’s face and stopped. “I’m sorry, Master--sorry to bring back the pain.”
“It’s all right,” Frodo said, but his words were hollow, and both he and Sam knew it.
Gimli looked from one to the other, saw the tiredness in Frodo’s eyes. “I think,” he said slowly, “that I’m for going back and resting some. I’ve been helping to cut wood for the cooking fires and all, and will be glad to let the soldiers remaining take over for me.”
Frodo’s expression was rather blank, but it was plain he was not fooled by the Dwarf’s words. Yet he didn’t argue, and when they got back into the camp went into the roofless tent to slip back into his bed. Sam followed. Frodo was plainly reluctant to sleep, at the same time it was obvious he needed it again. Sam looked back before he went through the door past the guard who made certain this enclosure remained inviolate. “I’ll see to it he rests, Gimli. Thanks.” The Dwarf gave a single nod, and watched after with concern.
They awoke an hour later as someone entered carrying a great tray, and they realized that Aragorn had brought it. He looked a bit drained himself, although his expression was happy enough. “Elrohir and I were just draining an abscess that has developed where one soldier was speared by an Easterling. I think I managed to pull out a bit of bark that had been caught in it. Which reminds me, Frodo, I wish to check the back of your neck when you’re through eating. The wound there has drained pretty steadily since the Eagles brought you forth, although it had slowed down a good deal by yesterday morning.”
“The back of my neck? What happened there?”
“I’m not certain, although Legolas says it looks like one of the great spiders of Mirkwood bit you there.”
Sam shuddered. “On the back of his neck, is it? Yes, it was a giant spider--huge, it was, too. That Gollum--it was his intention to let it have Mr. Frodo, and he was going to have the pleasure of killin’ me. Told me all about it, he did; but he spoke too soon and I was able to break his hold afore he strangled me. Chased him off into the gloom, I did.”
Frodo paused in the act of lifting one of the covers off the dishes on the tray Aragorn had set on the table between the beds, his face paling. “Cirith Ungol--Ungoliant!”
“What about Ungoliant?”
“She had a spider’s shape, didn’t she?”
“Yes, and she poisoned the Two Trees while in that shape.”
“That’s why the high pass we took is called that, then--Cirith Ungol--because it’s guarded by one of her brood.”
“Yes,” the Man nodded, “that was indeed how it was named.”
Frodo shuddered. “That was why Captain Faramir didn’t like the idea of us going that way.”
“He didn’t wish you to go that way?”
“No. He said that it was told that a great terror dwelt there, but he didn’t know what for certain.”
“So, you remember that.”
“Yes, I remember that part of the journey--it’s mostly after the crossroads I don’t remember properly. I remember Henneth Annun.”
“He took you there?”
“You know of it, Strider?”
Aragorn laughed. “Of course I know of it. I served in Gondor for many years, and here among the Rangers of Ithilien. Why did he take you there?”
“We’d stopped to rest for the day, and it was such a joy to rest where there was beauty and growth again after----”
When he didn’t go on, Aragorn continued, “After the starkness of the Emyn Muil and the fear of the lands around the Dead Marshes and the horrors of the places before the Black Gates?”
“Yes, save we didn’t go around the Dead Marshes--Sméogol led us through them.”
The Man shuddered. “The Valar defend you!” he murmured, his eyes briefly closed. “You survived that!” He looked at the two of them. “I almost sank to my death there, near a pool where one of my own people seemed to lie. I’d stopped to look in horror--and realized I was mired almost to my waist. I even fell into one of them.” He shook his head. “No wonder you were relieved to reach Ithilien.”
Sam nodded. “Gollum warned us to be careful, if we didn’t wish to join the ones in the pools and light little candles of our own. But we got near here, on the west side of the road we was travelin’. We’d stopped and Gollum went off hunting for hisself--couldn’t bear the lembas nor nothin’ Elvish, he couldn’t--he’d shudder if he touched our cloaks, even by accident, he would.” Frodo nodded confirmation.
“Mr. Frodo was asleep, there near what looked like an old fountain.” Aragorn indicated recognition. “I didn’t want to use up all the lembas afore we got into Mordor, so I called Gollum and asked if he could get us somethin’ for the pot, and he brings back this brace of conies, and I skinned and cooked them, somethin’ warm for the stomach after so long of just lembas and jerked meats and dried fruit and all.
“I got careless with my fire while I got Mr. Frodo to sup some--got distracted, I did, and some furze caught, and it smoked--just a bit. I put it out, and we tried to hide, but then the Rangers found us. Don’t know where old Gollum’d got off to, but he wasn’t in sight. They was settin’ up an ambush for the Southrons, and they let us watch. And I saw an oliphaunt, like in the old riddle poem, you know.”
“I see. They had several at the battle.”
Sam was immediately excited. “They did? Did you catch one of ’em?”
“I’m sorry Sam,” the Man said, smiling, “there was no time to do so. They caused the horses to pull away in terror. I fear we had to kill them all. So, you watched the ambush, and then Faramir pulled you back to Henneth Annun. It can be spectacular when the setting sun shines through the curtain.”
“Yes, it was,” Frodo said, his smile unforced. “We saw both the sun and the moon set through the water. It was so beautiful!”
Aragorn was so very glad as he saw the smile in memory of beauty unlooked for light Frodo’s features. It was one of the first true smiles he’d seen on the Hobbit’s face since he’d awakened, and he quietly determined to see to it that more were brought there. And he was grateful to the young Man who would be his Steward that he’d allowed the two of these to see that glory.
Sam continued, “I hope as Mr. Faramir is all right. A fair Man he was--good quality.”
“He’s in the capitol, in Minas Tirith, Sam. He’s recovering from grievous wounds and a horrible betrayal, but he was doing well when I left and has finally taken up his duties in the city. I look forward to working with him, and expect he and I will become good friends as time goes on.”
Frodo’s smile faded, replaced by grief and once again guilt. Aragorn could anticipate what was coming next. “He told us Boromir was dead.” He looked up at the Man, his eyes haunted. “If I’d left sooner----”
He who’d been Strider shook his head. “No, Frodo--had you left sooner it is probable he still would have died. He died fighting to protect Pippin and Merry, who were being threatened by Uruk-hai, the great fighting orcs engineered by Saruman.” He examined the Hobbit’s face, and added gently, “He told me what he’d done, Frodo. He was heartily sorry. And had you left sooner, I suspect it would have been the worse in the end, for he’d have followed after you, and had he found you I suspect he would have killed you outright for what the Ring would have caused him to see as your betrayal of him and his country’s need.”
“I could hear him calling out after me, begging forgiveness,” Frodo whispered. “I forgave him in my heart, Aragorn--I forgave him in my heart, for I knew what--what It was promising me, what It was doing--to me.” He swallowed. “If only I could have told him, so he didn’t die not knowing.” He looked up into the Man’s eyes. “You have to forgive him, Aragorn.”
“I did. I was able to come to him ere the end, and was able to hear that confession, and reassure him. He was relieved, Frodo, and knew he’d redeemed himself the best he could. He was truly sorry, Frodo.” And then he added, “And how could I not forgive him, considering what It was doing to me?”
“It was working on you, too?” Frodo seemed shocked.
“Of course It was,” Aragorn replied.
“You never let it show.”
“And add to your burdens?”
The Hobbit examined his friend’s face, saw the love expressed there, the deep caring. “I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t wish you to feel more guilty, Frodo. It was seeking to make me feel guilty, you see, guilty for allowing you to carry It when I could take It from you and relieve you--save I realized that doing so would not relieve you, only make you hate and fear me, and wish to destroy me to take It back.”
Frodo looked to Sam. “What did It promise you?”
Sam reddened. He looked to the Man’s eyes, and Aragorn realized that the gardener, too, had been told he could relieve Frodo from the burden, but he wouldn’t say it, not now. “Well, first It made out as how I could become Samwise the Brave and Bold, the Hero of the Age. I could just make Sauron back down, I could, raise my sword and armies would flock to me, and then I could make the whole of Mordor into a garden with but a word.” He shook his head. “Can you imagine me, Samwise Gamgee, raisin’ an army, much less leadin’ one? I’d send all my folks to their deaths as I’ve not the least idea as how to order a battle--and they’d of gone and done what I told ’em--they’d of died simply ’cause I wore the Ring and gave the order. No, I couldn’t do that to folks.” He looked away. “As for the garden--what’s the use of makin’ a garden by magic? It’s not the same. I only need my own garden, and I have that already at Bag End.” He turned back to the tray. “We’d best eat, Master.” He didn’t see the new wave of guilt that passed over Frodo’s face.
It was later after Sam had left to go to the privy that Aragorn asked Frodo, “Why did you look guilty about Sam’s statement he needs no more than the garden of Bag End, Frodo?”
The Hobbit looked sideways at him. “I don’t own Bag End any more. I sold it before we left the Shire.” He looked directly into Aragorn’s face. “I can’t even give him that! I owe him so much--and I can’t even give him Bag End’s garden.” The grief in Frodo’s eyes was great.
Again Aragorn knelt and sought to embrace Frodo for comfort, but Frodo would not accept it, pulled away, weeping. Frodo barely ate anything that day.