“So, you’re too fine to fight in the Dark Lord’s forces, are you? Think snagas like you can just sneak off and hide behind rocks till all else are facing the Tarks out there, and you’ll remain safe and untouched, do you? You filthy maggots!”
The lash had curled around Sam’s leg, and he could hear the barely contained cry of pain. Then the slave driver was addressing him. “And you, no better than him, are you?”
“You can’t hurt him! I won’t let you hurt him!”
“Then have a double helping, his and your own!”
Again the lash reached out, and he felt the sting of it on his own legs.
“Go ahead and hurt me! Go ahead! But I won’t let you hurt him!”
“Master! Master! I’m all right, Master. See? It’s but a dream, Master. Frodo! Can you hear me?”
Merry came in, his face pale and his hair tousled. “What is it?”
“Nightmare. I think it’s of when we was found inside Mordor and they thought as we was a couple orcs tryin’ to run away. None of ’em saw our feet, or they’d of knowed we wasn’t orcs. Made us march with ’em, whipping us when we was goin’ too slow. He was awful weak and exhausted anyways--hit him about twice as much as me, they did.”
Gandalf looked in from the doorway where he stood with Pippin. He pushed by Merry and knelt by Frodo, felt the hand Sam was chafing. “His hand is terribly cold, and I can feel the muscles spasming.” He looked at Pippin. “I need to send for Aragorn.”
“I’ll fetch him myself,” Pippin said, his fists clenched.
“No, send the boy, as that’s what he’s here for. Do you have any of the mushroom soup left you were brewing this evening? Go and get him a mug of it after you’ve sent off Lasgon.”
“All right, Gandalf.”
Within a short time Pippin was back with some of the warmed soup. Frodo was now sitting up, and Gandalf had wrapped one of the extra blankets around him. Frodo’s face was very pale except for the pink spots of color in his cheeks. “I’m all right, I tell you!” he said insistently.
“With the muscles of your hand spasming that way, Frodo? I think not,” Gandalf said.
Gandalf sighed, then turned and took the mug from Pippin. “Here, sip at this a bit.”
Frodo made to take it, but his right hand slipped, and had Gandalf not held it firmly it would have splattered over much of the bed. He gave a cry of pain as some of the soup fell on his hand, and he drew away, clutching at his right hand with his left, bringing his hands to his mouth and sucking at the place where the soup had landed.
“I don’t think it was hot enough to burn him,” Pippin whispered to Gandalf.
The Wizard dipped his finger in the mug. “No, it’s warm, but not that hot. But as cold as his hand is, it could feel burning hot by comparison.”
Merry had gone around the bed and now was sitting beside Frodo there, his arm around his cousin’s shoulders. “It’s what we came for, Frodo, to be with you when the bad times come.”
“I’m all right,” Frodo protested again, but his heart wasn’t in it. Sam was laying another folded blanket behind him for him to lean back against and repositioning the pillows. Gandalf held the mug gently to Frodo’s lips, but he turned his head away. “I’m not a bairn to be fed by others!” he insisted. “Leave me be!” Then he clutched again at the maimed hand and gave a muffled cry as once again the muscles clenched. “It hurts!” he whispered. The color had fled his face, and it was contorted with pain. Sweat broke out on his forehead, and he leaned back, biting at his lip.
“Here, dear Master, let me rub it for you now.” Sam sat himself sideways near Frodo’s hips, reached and took the hand between his own, warming it between his own palms, gently beginning to rub and massage it.
Belveramir woke as the knock came at his chamber door. “Yes?” he called out.
The door opened, and one of the two guards from the door to the Royal Wing looked in. “It’s the page assigned to the Hobbits,” the Man said. “Gandalf calls for the King--says the Ringbearer is in a bad way.”
Sighing, the valet sat up and reached for a loose chamber robe to pull over his sleeping robe. The guard had a lamp ready for him to carry as he came out of the room and headed down the passage to the Royal Chambers themselves. He entered through the drawing room and knocked loudly at the inner door to the King’s own chamber, then opened the door and slid the lighted lamp onto the table just inside. “My Lord,” he called gently, “Lord Mithrandir calls for you to come. The Ringbearer is apparently in pain.” He then pulled back into the outer room.
He could hear the activity inside, and when the door opened again he entered the room. Aragorn had pulled off his sleeping robe and flung it over the foot of the rumpled bed, stood clad only in drawers, pulling the trousers he’d worn earlier in the day from the stand where Belveramir had draped them. Belveramir brought a shirt out of the dressing room, smiling to recognize this as one of those which had been stored away for so many years among the effects of the Lord Captain Thorongil. Aragorn barely paid much attention as the valet held it for him, thrust his hands through the sleeves and quickly set to fastening the laces.
Once trousers were donned and fastened, he sat and allowed Belveramir to assist him into stockings and the low boots he’d just accepted that day. Belveramir indicated he was ready, and the King arose, taking his sword belt and fastening it on, sliding a dagger automatically into it, then adding his pipe from the table where the lamp lay. He went out and grabbed up the red healer’s satchel which hung inside the door, quickly noted that the knot was intact, and headed for the doorway.
As he reached the bottom of the stair to the upper levels one of his Elven brothers came down to join him, a sword at his belt. “I didn’t call for you, Elrohir,” he said.
“This way your personal guard can remain undisturbed, Estel. Frodo is having a bad night, then?”
“Apparently.” Together they pushed through the doors. “I’m going down to the house on the Sixth Level,” he announced to those on duty. “I take Elrohir as personal guard so no one else need be disturbed. From there it is likely I shall go to the prison area, so if one can be sent there in about two hours’ time to take over for my brother, I would appreciate it.”
“Yes, Lord Cousin,” answered one of them.
“Thank you, Baerdion,” Aragorn responded as he nodded to Lasgon who stood waiting there, and together Man, Elf, and boy hurried through the Citadel to a side door where one of the regular Guards of the Citadel saluted them and let them out into the night.
A dog in one of the houses near the ramp barked as they hurried by, but all else was still. Gimli stood at the door to the house, and opened it with a sigh of relief to admit them. “He seems to be in a lot of pain, Aragorn,” he said as he pushed by them to lead the way to the day room. “His hand is throbbing, and his mood is touchy as that of a wasp. He just ordered Merry and Pippin out of there.”
The two younger Hobbits sat near each other, Pippin nursing the contents of a mug, Merry looking up from his concern for his cousin to give Aragorn a wan smile. Aragorn gave them a quick nod which he hoped was reassuring, and lengthened his stride as he hurried through Sam’s chamber, turning only long enough to request Lasgon see to heating up some water and bringing it to him in Master Frodo’s room.
An hour and a half later they finally had Frodo soothed back to sleep, then saw Sam similarly tucked up. Gandalf had come out and shooed the other two Hobbits back to bed, and now sat with Gimli, each drinking from a flagon of ale and with lit pipe in hand, on the bench on the balcony of the house.
Gandalf looked up at them. “He’s better?”
“Yes, and the pain is relieved for now. I’ve not seen him so despondent since before we left Ithilien.”
A whisper of fabric, and Merry emerged wearing a robe over his nightshirt, his pipe in hand. “Pippin’s asleep again, so I thought it would be safe to come out myself,” he murmured softly. “Frodo was very much on his dignity tonight.”
“I noticed,” Aragorn commented dryly.
“It drives him crazy to be dependent on others. If he thought Sam and Gandalf would listen to him he’d have ordered them out as well.”
Gandalf sighed. “He tried.”
The Elf, settled upwind of the four pipes which were now lit, gave a small laugh. “Master of the house he is, apparently. There’s a light bruise there on his knuckles which appears to have sparked tonight’s episode.”
Aragorn nodded. “Probably from striking the Umbari on the chin. Well, I’ll finish this pipe and go off to the prison. I’d intended to question the suspected spies early before the day’s audiences. Then I will get a light morning meal and need to dress properly to officially welcome our guests from Rhovanion and deal with the spying questions and those from Umbar. I’m not allowing them to remain longer.”
“Are you going to offer them the treaty the Council worked up the other day?” the Wizard asked.
“Yes. Imrahil and Faramir have done an excellent job at getting it written up and readying it for presentation.”
Gimli grunted, “What about this perverted sot who’s been bothering Frodo? Is he going home untouched?”
“I will make that determination after I’ve questioned him. Although the fact he was knocked senseless by a Perian little over half his height must be wonderfully troubling to the fool. However, I might just order the lash if I find him giving me difficulty. I certainly wish I’d known of this talent of Frodo’s long ago, though.”
Merry, drawing deeply on his pipe, let out a sigh. “I don’t think any of us saw it as being any good outside the Shire. I mean, it’s hard to impress someone with your fists when he towers over you and you can’t reach high enough to do much good.”
“He did well enough with this one, I must say,” Aragorn sighed as he finished the last of his pipeweed and sat with the pipe held between his two hands. “One blow to the gut to get him to bend over, and the second to the chin to stun him. It was masterfully done.” He knocked the ashes out against the wall to the balcony and stood up and stretched. “I must go now. Merry, if you are to be in any condition to attend on your lord later this morning, you’d best get at least another hour’s sleep. Go on with you.” He turned to the Wizard. “Thank you, Gandalf, for sending for me.”
“He’s most disgruntled I did, but I truly feel he needed you.”
Aragorn crept into Sam’s room and looked down on him and saw him sleeping; peeped into Frodo’s and saw his face calm in the pale starlight, then crept out, looked into the room Merry and Pippin shared as Merry was slipping back into bed and smiled, noting Pippin was indeed deeply asleep, then slipped up the stairs to the room where Lasgon slept and looked in. The boy woke immediately and sat up. “Do you need me, my Lord?” he asked, his sleepy face already becoming alert.
“No, just making certain all is well with you. You did well tonight, Lasgon.”
The boy smiled as he lay back down. “Thank you, Lord Elessar,” he murmured, and yawned.
“Sleep well, child.” Aragorn said softly, and he went back downstairs. Elrohir stood by the door, and now the two of them went back out into the night and up the ramp.
Not long after dawn Frodo awoke, his hand and wrist aching but no longer spasming. The ache was similar to what he’d known when younger when he’d climbed a tree for the first time in a season, but confined to the lower right arm instead of throughout his body. He rubbed at it gently, then sat up. He turned and stood up, then had to reach out to the bed to steady himself. Grumbling to himself, he let the giddiness pass, and went into the privy, then came out to dress himself.
This afternoon a tailor was coming to measure them all for new clothes, and he intended to have proper buttons for braces added to his trousers so far and have a suit or two of Shire clothing made for himself. He intended to look once more as a Hobbit should and show the folk of Gondor that there was more than one way of looking elegant.
Sam came in, stretching and yawning. “How are you doing today, Mr. Frodo? Feeling better?”
“Yes, much better than last night.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I wasn’t more gracious, though. Seems to me I was downright rude.”
“You was in a good deal of pain, Mr. Frodo.”
“Still fails to excuse me, Sam.”
“That’s not for me to say, Master. Mistress Loren just looked in to say as she was making omelets for breakfast, if you’d care for one.”
Frodo ate an omelet and slice of toast, and drank a cup of juice. He thanked the housekeeper for the meal and went to prepare for the journey up to the seventh level. Suddenly, however, he found himself hurrying for the privy, where he lost all he’d eaten. He hoped that the others hadn’t noticed, but had no surety they hadn’t. His shirt was now splashed, and he made his way into his room, removed it slowly and carefully donned another, pulling a surcoat over it, then sank onto the bed, feeling tired and weakened. He’d not had his morning draught--was that why he was nauseated this morning? He rinsed out his mouth and spat it into his basin, finally drank some water and hoped he’d be able to keep it down. Finally he left the room through Sam’s chamber, to find Sam coming that way looking concerned.
“I didn’t know as where you’d gone, Mr. Frodo. Are you all right?”
“Just decided to wear a different shirt is all, Sam. The other had a bit of a spot on it.”
“Did it? Didn’t notice any when I hung it on the chair for you last night.”
“I spilled at breakfast, Sam.”
“You did? I didn’t see. Well, you look fine enough in that. Are you ready, Mr. Frodo?”
Gimli, who’d eaten two omelets himself, stood waiting at the door for them. “I’ll just go up with you, and make certain none of the others from Umbar has a chance to get rude, Frodo. Then I’ll probably spend a good deal of the day with my father.”
“Thank you, Gimli.”
He had to stop halfway up and take a few deep breaths, but then he forced himself on. By the time they came to the stairs to the citadel Frodo was exhausted, although he did his best not to show it. He walked through the vestibule slowly and into the Hall of Kings, led by a page who brought them to a place not far from the Steward’s black chair. Two low chairs waited for him and Sam, and he was glad to be able to sit in one. On a low, narrow table between the two chairs sat a carafe and two goblets of water, and on a small plate a cluster of grapes and small triangles of lightly buttered bread. He found himself profoundly grateful for Aragorn’s thoughtfulness as he carefully pulled a single grape from the bunch and popped it into his mouth and slowly chewed it.
One of the sons of Elrond came up behind him and set a mug containing his draught beside him, and Frodo looked up and quietly thanked him, took it, and sipped at it, afraid to drink it too quickly lest he lose it.
The room began to fill with folk, and Prince Imrahil sat in an elaborately carved chair opposite them. At last Lord Faramir emerged from behind the throne with Lord Halladan and they each moved to stand before their chairs. Frodo and Sam rose as the King entered, dressed in the black robe he’d worn at his coronation feast, but with the Winged Crown on his head and Anduril at his side, a white mantle clasped with the Elessar brooch over his shoulders.
The Chief Herald tapped his staff upon the floor of the chamber. “His Majesty, the Lord King Aragorn Elessar of Gondor and Arnor, offers audience to those who come before his presence this day.” Aragorn paused on the dais between his two Stewards as this was announced, then turned and strode up the steps to stand before the throne, lifting his sword from its hangers and laying its sheath across his knees as he sat down.
Frodo sat down in his chair with a grunt of relief, and Sam shot him a considering look. Four chairs, each heavily carved, were now brought in and set upon the dais between the chairs of the Stewards. The Herald tapped his staff. “His Majesty, Éomer King of Rohan and his sister the Lady Éowyn, the White Lady of the Mark.” The two entered from the Vestibule, Éomer resplendent in burgundy and gold, his crown with its horse heads upon his brow; the Lady in a gown of white with sleeves lined with wine color, a girdle of wine-colored velvet about her waist. Éomer stood before one of the central chairs while his sister stood beside it to his left.
“His Majesty, the Lord King Bard son of Brand, grandson of Bard the Bowman, King of Dale in Rhovanion. Lord Blyn, Seneschal of Dale. Lady Rhiannon, niece to King Brand, Lord Blyn’s wife.” These three walked majestically from the Vestibule, their heads high, dressed in dark blues and golds. Bard stopped before the chair to Éomer’s right while Lord Blyn and Lady Rhiannon stood right and left of him.
“The Lord Prince Tharen Thranduilion of Eryn Lasgalen in Rhovanion, representing his father Thranduil, King of the great Forest of Green Leaves, and his brother the Lord Prince Legolas, the King’s Companion.”
Frodo watched the coming of the two Elves, Tharen with his waist-length hair so dark a brown as to appear almost black, the complicated braids on either side fastened with beads of silver set with peridots, his woven silver circlet a mate to that worn by his golden-haired brother, both wearing soft golds and golden greens subtly embroidered with sprays of leaves. Tharen stopped before the chair furthest to the right, Legolas standing to his right.
“Lord Gloin of Erebor, representing Thorin Stronghelm son of Dain Ironfoot, now King of the realm below the Lonely Mountain. His son Gimli, the King’s Companion.” Gloin’s white hair, beard, and mustaches were all carefully braided, the braids finished with great patterned beads of worked gold. He walked to the chair to the left of the line and stood there before it, Gimli standing proudly on his left.
Aragorn rose as the four before the chairs turned as one to face him, and he bowed deeply. “I rejoice to welcome each of you to Gondor, and to give you honor this day. My Lord Bard, I grieve to hear of the death of your father, for he was a gracious man and worthy of all respect. Lord Gloin, I am sorry that King Thorin could not accompany you, and that King Thranduil could not come here either at this time, Lord Tharen. Alas, Lord Gloin, King Bard, so many of the greatest lords of Middle Earth have perished in the last battles against the forces of Sauron; and although I must rejoice at your presence here, I must yet grieve at the loss of those such as Dain Ironfoot and Brand son of Bard the Bowman. Always have your people withstood the forces sent by Sauron from the orc strongholds in Dol Guldur and the Misty Mountains, remaining true to all who have sought to remain the Free Peoples of Middle Earth.
“Alas that we could not send troops to aid yours, but as you have seen, the peoples of Gondor and Arnor have also fought heavily and with much loss of life; it will be many years before we can rid Minas Tirith of the scars of war wrought here by the forces of orcs, trolls, wargs, Men, and mumakil brought against this city alone under the command of Sauron’s Nazgul. Here fell many from throughout Gondor, Arnor, and Rohan. Our croplands that have ever supported the needs of Minas Tirith have been trampled and burned and heavily scarred. But we rejoice that Sauron is at last thrown down and this time cannot rise again.”
Tharen of Mirkwood raised his head proudly. “My brother has told us much of what you have been through, Aragorn Arathornrion, of the desperate journey you and the Ringbearer and your companions made from the lands of the Periannath to Imladris and then to Amon Hen, and then the separate journeys through many dangers first to fight here and then before the Black Gate itself. That so much remains considering the might thrown against this land is a matter of much wonder, and great is our joy that this is so. And my father sends his great thanks, honor, and respect to the Ringbearer, the chosen heir to Bilbo Elvellon, Frodo son of Drogo, and to his companion the renowned Samwise son of Hamfast.”
All who stood on the dais turned to where Frodo and Sam sat and bowed deeply. Frodo and Sam rose and bowed in return, Sam flushing furiously and Frodo pale as niphredil. When the bows were done, Frodo sank back into his chair, and Sam reached out to place his hand on Frodo’s forearm, realizing with concern that it was trembling. Sam turned, caught the eye of Aragorn’s foster brother and signaled him to Frodo’s side with a brief jerk of his head. The Peredhel gave a gentle nod, came quietly forward and knelt by Frodo’s chair and placed his hand on Frodo’s shoulder, surreptitiously checking Frodo’s pulse.
The other lords on the dais also added their greetings and words of thanks that the wars with Sauron were at last finished. Gloin commented, “We know that there is likely to continue to be strife in this world, for such it is with those of us who are mortal; but now at last the great evil of our times is finally at an end, and for that we are profoundly grateful.”
Frodo only half heard the rest of what was said by Gloin or what was said by King Bard, much less the final words by Aragorn. He heard the soft, almost whispered song of the invocation made by the Elf who knelt beside him, felt the gentle touch on his shoulder, felt the warmth begin where his fingers lay and spread throughout his body slowly, at last felt the nausea he’d suffered since he’d lost his breakfast recede, felt the trembling stop. At last the Elf finished, then straightened, gave an encouraging pat to his shoulder, and Frodo turned to smile at him. Elrohir, he thought. He took back up the mug containing the draught and finished it, then set it down and took his glass of water and drank that as well. He finally turned his attention back to the doings of the audience, grateful to feel better.