That night was another banquet of farewell for those from Rhovanion who would be leaving on the morrow. Aragorn again brought Frodo to the kitchens of the Citadel to taste some of the spicier and richer dishes to be offered, and afterwards they went together to the feast hall.
Gimli sat by his father and the rest from Erebor, sad to see them go, although he hoped to return home himself for a time soon enough. Legolas sat similarly with his brother and those of their people who’d come from Eryn Lasgalen.
Frodo appeared cheerful enough at the feast, but ate sparingly at best, and Aragorn watched him with a level of concern as he frequently rubbed unconsciously at his shoulder or hand. He was seated near a lord from near Erech who was describing the riding out of the Paths of the Dead of the King’s companions and the army that followed them, and his own people’s reaction to it all.
Again Aragorn led the first dance with Lady Rhiannon; but not long after the dancing started there was a bustle near the doorway, and one of the servers made his way through the crowd to the King’s side and spoke quietly in his ear. The King listened, asked a couple of questions, and sighed, turned to approach Lord Faramir.
“There is an emergency in the Houses of Healing,” Aragorn told his Steward, who stood by his cousins Lothiriel and Amrothos and his aunt this night. “I must go at once, but hope to return soon.”
“I will make your excuses,” Faramir assured him. “Go swiftly, and may all go well with you there.”
As he approached the exit, Aragorn found Frodo and Sam by his side. “I’ll go with you,” Frodo said. “I’ve felt as if there were something building up much of the day.”
Aragorn shared a look with Sam. “He’s been itchin’ all day ’bout somethin’,” Sam confirmed. “I’ve a mind meself to go back to the house early and rest. That rain last night seemed to of put us both off our sleep.”
“I see,” the King said. “Well, Frodo, if you feel you ought to go with me, let us leave, then.”
Almaros sat in a corner of the Wounded Drum, a large beaker of ale before him--perhaps his eighth or ninth. It seemed he had been doing a good deal of such drinking for some time--certainly since he’d returned from the assault on the Black Gate.
He’d always been a tall, muscular, happy, pleasant fellow. At twenty-five he was joyfully married to the woman he’d loved since the two of them were sixteen; he’d finished his apprenticeship three years past as a mason and specialized in repairs to homes and guild halls, and was a superb plasterer. He’d never thought to go as a soldier until after the assault on the city by the forces of Mordor.
His wife Kendriel had gone with her mother, sister, and the sister of Almaros to the places of refuge West of Minas Tirith, and he’d watched her go with regret. His father was yet strong and vigorous, and had in his youth served in the Rangers of Ithilien for a time, until an arrow in the shoulder had lost him partial use of his left arm. Yet his father had continued an excellent swordsman, and had remained with the younger Men to protect the capitol. He’d been standing beside Almaros when a great stone cast over the walls by the catapults of Mordor had struck him and killed him instantly. Almaros had been shaken, but also taken with a great rage against Sauron’s folk that had led him to volunteer to go with the Men of the City in the march on Mordor itself.
Almost he’d been unmanned by horror as they’d come closer and closer to the Black Gate, but he’d managed to master himself. He’d stood on the right-hand hill with the rest of the Men of the City, behind Beregond of the Guard; the Man from the First Circle who’d stood on his left had been disemboweled by an orc who’d broken through to their rank; the one on the right had killed two orcs but had lost his left arm to a third. Almaros had been stunned by a blow to the helmet he’d inherited from his father and had fallen face down on the noisome ground; then both of the two orcs killed by the Man to his right had fallen on his back, and he found he couldn’t roll the things off him to get up. When the one who’d lost his arm fell beside him, he’d heard the Man lying there, whimpering in pain for some time before he’d gone silent. By the time searchers found Almaros, the Man had apparently bled to death. As he was helped to his feet, Almaros had seen bodies of Men, orcs, trolls, and wargs on all sides, heard piteous cries, and had watched as the Dwarf who was the King’s companion had singlehandedly rolled the body of a great troll off of a grouping of three bodies, saw him lift up the body of the Ernil i Pheriannath and hold it to him, howling with grief until the Elf had come to take it from him, then declared this one was perhaps alive after all, if they could only get him to the King for tending. Others had ministered to the other two Men, one of whom was telling of the great courage the Pherian had shown, and how his kill of the troll had saved the lives of all about them when the troll had attacked their position.
Almaros had done nothing to save anyone--he’d not had the chance. He’d lived, basically unhurt, had come home again relatively safe. He’d not done as well as the Pherian had. He wished he’d died.
He knew that Kendriel couldn’t understand what was wrong with him any more than her brother Kendrion did. Kendrion was a member of the City Guard, and had been one of the Men ordered to escort the transports of women, children, and other non-combatants to the protected valleys where hopefully they’d remain safe. He’d not seen the great army massed upon the Pelennor; had not been there when the rain of heads fell behind the walls of the city, hadn’t seen the First Circle burning in the night. He hadn’t gone with those who went out from Minas Tirith to march on Mordor itself. He’d seen only the remains of the bodies of the Mumakil, the funeral pyres on which the bodies of the trolls, orcs, wargs and Men who’d fought under the command of the Nazgul were still being burned when at last he led those under his care from the places of refuge back to the city.
Almaros had tried to resume his old life, but no longer was he carefree; no longer did he simply rejoice in his work and his wife and his home. Now he saw to it the house was sealed shut each night; he startled awake at any odd sound he heard; he constantly called out to Kendriel while he was home to make certain she was there and had not been taken by an unknown enemy while out of his sight. When he slept he had nightmares of orcs, trolls, and wargs; heard the cries of the Nazgul and the horrid calls of their leather-winged steeds; heard again and again the whimpering cries of the Man who’d bled to death beside him when he could do nothing to help, nothing to save him.
Tonight Kendrion and several of those who served with him had decided to go to the Wounded Drum in the Fifth Circle, and they’d insisted Almaros go with them. Once he’d begun drinking, however, Almaros hadn’t been able to stop. He’d said little enough, hadn’t joined in the laughter or songs; had gone to the privy at one point and had come back to sit in the corner alone, ignoring and eventually ignored by the rest. Maybe if he could drink enough he could drown out the memories....
Then one of those who sat with Kendrion was describing the battle as it could be seen from the walls, the lines of the trenches which had been dug by the enemy and which they’d filled with fire, the whine of the arrows, the crashing of the stones, the flare of the balls which burst upon impact and caused so many fires within the First Circle and even a few in the Second. Kendrion and a couple others who’d also been in the escort for the women and children shook their heads in amazement at what they heard described.
As the description began, Almaros set his head down on the table; half-dazed with drink, he found himself envisioning what they were describing; then it was as if he were there again, standing behind the wall watching that rain of heads coming over it; he turned to his father who stood by him to share a look of horror, only to see the stone falling on him again....
He lurched to his feet, knocking over the almost full beaker of ale before him and the chair he’d been seated on. “No!” he bellowed. All turned to look at him, shocked at the wild aspect to his face, the mindless terror and rage to be seen in his eyes. “No! I’ll not go through it again! You won’t kill him again!” He continued to yell, his words growing increasingly incoherent.
The guardsman who’d been describing the battle stood, stepping near him to place his hand on Almaros’s shoulder. “It’s well past now, my friend,” he said, but the young mason struck his hand away.
“Ye’ll not be cozening me!” Almaros shouted.
Attention throughout the room was turning toward their party. Kendrion tried to calm his sister’s husband. “Hush, now. All are turning to see....”
“Can’t you see it’s all for nought?”
The barman looked over their way, plainly upset at the row being raised. “Ye’d best be taking him out so he can cool his head with some fresh air,” he suggested.
The attempt to coax him out, however, was unsuccessful. The more they tried to compel him, the more fearful and combative Almaros became. Realizing he was likely to hurt himself or someone else, other guardsmen began coming over to try to help bring him out of the tavern. Terrified, Almaros began to struggle. It took six Men to finally overpower him and carry him out of the Wounded Drum, at which time Kendrion looked, sweating with effort and fear, at the most senior of those who’d aided in bringing Almaros out. “What do we do now?” he asked.
The rest looked to one another, struggling to keep Almaros under control. “The Houses of Healing,” finally one of them suggested. “They should be able to give him some herbs to calm him, I would think.”
As no one had any better idea, the group turned to the gate to the Sixth Circle.
The journey wasn’t easy, for Almaros fought and struggled the entire way. He himself had no real idea why or what precisely he was fighting, but fight he did. The guards at the sixth gate heard their tale, and their lieutenant made a decision. “The King will be needed to aid with this, I think,” he said, and he sent a messenger up to the Citadel and detailed two of his Men to assist in getting Almaros to the Houses.
The last of the way seemed to take forever, for Almaros seemed to gain in strength in the extremes of his desperation. Where earlier those bringing him had done their best not to hurt him, now several grumbled they wished they had the strength to knock him senseless for the moment so they could make it the last of the way more quickly. As it was, however, none dared let go of what part of his body each held to attempt it, for any time a limb was pulled free whoever was closest was clouted heavily.
The porter at the door to the Houses watched the approach with interest, then turned to the page who stood by, sending him to warn those who served that night. Healers and aides came clustering into the main hallway as those who held Almaros finally prepared to let go his feet, at least. The warden watched as they set down his feet and hips, and those who’d held him pulled hastily aside. Almaros struggled to his feet, still struggling to pull hands and arms free, shaking his head free from those who’d muffled his cries of fury and terror.
It was into this scene that the King and the Ringbearer walked, their attention caught by the spectacle before them. Frodo’s own attention was fixed on the Man’s face, apparently fascinated by the horror shown there.
“What brought him to this?” asked the King.
Kendrion, who’d held one of the legs and whose face was beginning to display a marked bruise where he’d been kicked, shook his head as he took a deep breath. “He’s been anything but rational since the war, my Lord King. He came back from the assault on the Black Gate thin and wary. He drives my sister, to whom he’s been married two years, to distraction, insisting he must know where she is and what she does each and every moment that he is in their home. He cries out in his sleep and strikes at any who startles him.”
Another added, “He came out with us to the Wounded Drum, and has drunk steadily all the night. He started to drift into a doze and woke suddenly, knocking over his drink and furniture, crying out drunkenly. He seems to think he is under attack.”
“Let me go!” Almaros cried out. “Let me go! Kendriel!”
Kendrion turned to his sister’s husband. “Kendriel is well, Almaros. She’s well and home. Calm yourself.” When he tried to lay a soothing hand on the mason’s shoulder, Almaros pulled a hand free and struck him alongside the head. “Ach!” the young guardsman cried out. “No!” As others sought to restrain Almaros again, the frustration Kendrion knew grew too great for him. “You fool!” he cried out in the face of the inarticulate bellows his brother-in-law had been reduced to. “You fool! Quiet yourself, lout, that someone can help you! Or have you lost all semblance of sanity? What happened there that you have come to this?”
Frodo could restrain himself no longer. He stepped forward and placed a hand on Kendrion’s side. “No! Stop it now! Both of you!”
Both surprised by the authority in the halfling’s voice, they stilled and looked down at the Ringbearer. Certain he’d caught their attention, Frodo nodded. “Both of you will quiet your voices,” he said in command.
Kendrion looked in question from the small figure to the tall one of their new King, who simply nodded confirmation. Uncertainly he pulled back from Almaros, then took a deep breath, preparing to explain. “He’s been anything but right since he’s come back from the battle, my lord,” he said.
“Were you among those who fought?” asked the Pherian.
“No,” Kendrion answered. “I was sent to guard the women and children. But he was not even hurt!”
Frodo shook his head. “If you were not at the battle then you cannot know the wounds he carries on his spirit. Keep quiet if you cannot understand.” Then he turned to Almaros and those who had been holding him, and directed them, “Let him go.”
All looked at each other. With a nod from the senior guardsman they did so, stepping back. Almaros stood finally on his own, wavering on his feet. Frodo stepped forward and looked up into the Man’s haunted eyes. “Those who have never seen the Black Gate and the Towers of the Teeth or heard the cries of the Nazgul from right above you cannot know what it is like, can they?” Almaros nodded in agreement. “Did one of your companions die nearby you?” Frodo asked.
Again a nod. “Two,” Almaros said huskily, “and before that, here, my father. A stone. I could do nothing--nothing for any of them.”
Now it was Frodo’s turn to nod his understanding. He gestured to the Man to kneel down so that he could look into his eyes, and again Almaros obeyed. He reached out to touch the Man’s face, and there was grief and understanding in his eyes, and he said, “I can understand. Many died to allow me time to reach the Chamber of Fire, and I could not help any of them. Be at peace now, and allow the King to attend you. For, like you, I have seen greater evil than I ever dreamed existed, and he called me back from it, and he can help you to find yourself as well, if you will allow it.”
“I wasn’t seriously hurt!” Almaros whispered as the tears finally began to flow. “I wasn’t hurt. Why did they die? Why am I yet alive?”
Frodo reached forward to embrace him, held the Man’s body close to his own, rocking it gently in his arms.
Kendrion looked on in worry. “He’s been more than half mad,” he said to the Warden and the King in a low voice. “What if he becomes violent again? Shall we pull him away from the Ringbearer?”
The Lord Elessar turned from the sight of the Pherian cradling the weeping Man, shook his head. “No,” he said. “This one needed one who understands--and there is none who knows the trials on his gentle spirit better than does Frodo. Let Frodo continue to soothe him for a time.” He turned to the Warden and gave orders for a soothing draught to be prepared, indicated the herbs he wished used and the proportions.
The Warden nodded. “Mistress Ioreth shall see to it, my Lord. She’s a good hand at preparing the draughts.” He turned his head to an elderly woman who stood watching, and she gave a brief bow of her head and went off to fetch the required remedy. The Warden then turned to the rest who stood nearby. “I think we will not need all of you after all,” he commented. “Let you return to your own duties.” He turned to an aide. “Prepare a room overlooking the gardens. I doubt there is need to remove him to the house for troubled spirits--and if there is, we will move him there on the morrow.” The young Man bowed respectfully and hurried off while the others scattered in an orderly fashion to their places.
When Mistress Ioreth returned with the draught the King murmured his thanks, took it, and finally approached the two still embracing in the hallway. He set his hand on the shoulder of Almaros. “My friend,” he said gently, “are you ready to take some rest now?”
Almaros looked up at him, his face streaked with tears. “My Lord?” he asked.
“Come. A bed is prepared for you,” Aragorn said comfortingly. “And in the morning your wife will want her husband returned to her whole once more.”
Almaros felt the warmth from the King’s touch at his shoulder, felt it begin to spread throughout him as at last the Ringbearer loosed him and he stood. The tears finally stopped as, sanity clearly showing in his eyes, he nodded. “Yes, Lord Elessar,” he said. He accepted the draught, drank it down, followed the King to the room outside which the aide stood waiting. He was soon deeply in healing sleep.
Aragorn looked down on Frodo where he had sat himself in the bedside chair. “Are you ready to return to the feast or the house, small brother?”
Frodo shook his head. “No--I’d rather remain here. If he awakens again, it may ease him to know he is not alone.”
The Man looked down at the Hobbit, and laid his hand on Frodo’s head. “If you say so, muindir nín,” he sighed. “Only don’t let your own spirit become troubled soothing his.” He leaned down to press a kiss into Frodo’s hair, and left to return to his guests. In the hallway he stopped to reassure the guardsmen. At last he turned to Kendrion. “Your sister is his wife?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Then go to her and let her know where he is and under what circumstances. I think he will be much restored tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Lord Elessar.” The young Man still stood, however, obviously wanting to say more. Aragorn waited. Finally Kendrion blurted out, “He was brave, the Ringbearer. Almaros could have become violent again and hurt him terribly.”
The King smiled solemnly. “Frodo knows the depth of his own authority, you will find. He was in no danger, not once your friend responded to his command to be quiet.” He turned to Ioreth. “Mistress, please bring him a cold compress ere he leaves.”
“Yes, Lord Elessar.” She again hurried away.
“I thank you.” The young guardsman twisted the ring on his hand between his fingers. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I’m the one who joined the guard, not Almaros. He wouldn’t have gone to Mordor if his father hadn’t been struck down beside him here, I think. He went and was struck down himself immediately, but wasn’t badly injured. I don’t understand what has bothered him.”
“As Frodo said, those who haven’t felt the depths of terror which go through one in such a situation cannot fully understand the guilt that can course through you afterwards.”
“Guilt? He harmed none!”
“True; but he has felt he didn’t help any, either. He lived and others he felt more worthy died beside him, and he couldn’t help them.”
“It’s foolish to feel such guilt.” The King nodded agreement. “I don’t understand why you say the Ringbearer should understand such feelings. Neither did he harm any.”
“Yet he still feels responsible for the deaths of many, for he is certain the length of his journey cost the lives of those who died here before the city or in Osgiliath or before Mordor.” The King sighed. “You cannot know how deeply scarred Frodo’s very soul was by his burden. He may never fully recover.”
Ioreth returned with the compress, wrung out in comfrey water. The King nodded his thanks, then indicated it should be given to Kendrion; and as the guardsman pressed it to his bruise he dismissed him.
Soon Kendrion and his fellows were on their way down the ways of the city to their homes, and the King, after looking back into the room where Frodo sat by the bed, turned to make his way back up the ramp to the feast hall of Merethrond.
Frodo sat by the bed all through the night, drowsing at times, but not leaving the Man alone. Twice during the night Almaros awoke to see the Pherian still sitting near him, once definitely asleep. He smiled, comforted, and returned to his own sleep reassured.
Frodo looked up just after dawn when Aragorn again joined him. “He’s slept well throughout the night,” Frodo reported. “I think he’ll be well enough now.”
The King leaned over the sleeping Man, who woke immediately at his touch, his face calm, a hint of his former good humor in his eyes. “My Lord?” he asked.
“You look far different now than you did last night, my friend. Are you ready to go home, do you think?”
“I believe so, Lord Elessar. Just knowing that--that I am not alone has helped immensely. You cannot understand, I think, how horrible I felt knowing I lived unhurt while others died about me and I had done nothing.”
“You think not? Do not be so certain, my friend. Again and again, particularly when I was yet a very young Man, I was physically held back from aiding others that I not be hurt while I was forced to watch others go forth to die in my stead, others who all too often knew full well they would die that I might live. And there finally came the time when I must ask for volunteers to go before, those who most likely would die, that the rest of us might fall on the enemy from the rear and destroy them, or that we might aid noncombatants to be removed from danger while the enemy was distracted. Although you may be sure I did my best to make certain those who went forward were best prepared not only to die for the good of others but to prevail against the enemy against all odds, until at last they survived more often than not.
“You see, as the heir of Isildur I carried the hope of my own people. I could not spend my life freely for others, for I must live that in the end the Enemy might be properly opposed here, and that all of the descendants of the Dúnedain might at the end be brought together again under one rule to the hope of all the free peoples of Middle Earth.
“I had the choice of either feeling ever guilty that others died for me, or to honor them for their willingness to die that those of us who were shielded by them continued to live. My adar taught me to choose the latter.
“One more thing, my friend--I honor your mastery of your fear to go forth from this city to the Black Gate, your willingness to place yourself in the imminent danger of death that others might live. You saw how many there were who left us as we approached Mordor to go to Cair Andros instead, Men whose spirits could not bear to face the Black Gates and Sauron’s own creatures. Your wife’s brother has explained that you were not trained as a warrior, and that you chose to go to avenge the loss of your father who died here in Minas Tirith during the assault on the city.”
“Yes, my Lord, that was true.”
“For one who had never thought to serve as a warrior to choose to seek to protect others, and to make it to stand before the gates to Mordor in the end, that showed far greater courage than you can yet appreciate. Even if you never struck a blow against the enemy at all, you yet showed far greater courage and self-mastery than many who had trained in the armies for years who could not bring themselves to stand against their greatest fears. And that Eru saw that you were not equipped to prevail in such a battle and saw to it you were struck down early and yet not seriously hurt that you might return to the comfort of those who love you--I give thanks to Him for that mercy.”
“You give thanks that I live?”
“Yes, my friend, I do. The very fact you were there shielded so many, including the Ringbearers themselves. Frodo himself would have died had we not gone to stand before the Black Gate. And had they not made it to the Sammath Naur largely because we stood before Mordor itself as a distraction for the Eye of Sauron, all in the end would have died.”
“I see.” Almaros looked at Frodo where he sat in the chair. “I wish to thank you, Lord Frodo, for your willingness to spend yourself that the rest of the free peoples might live. It was knowledge that you moved in secret that gave me the courage to go to stand before the Black Gate.”
Frodo flushed at the sound of the hated title, although he did not seek to correct the Man. “You knew?”
“I traveled among those who surrounded the Ernil i Pheriannath, you see. I overheard him explaining to Beregond of the Guard that you and your friend had broken off from the others to go alone into the Black Land, and that our Lord Faramir had seen you and aided you on your way. He explained our coming helped shield you. If you were willing to secretly enter Mordor to seek the destruction of the Enemy’s weapon, how could I do less than aid you as I could?”
Frodo was confused and humbled by such an admission. “Thank you,” he said. Aragorn simply smiled.
While Frodo and Aragorn went together throughout the rest of the Houses, Almaros was examined by Eldamir and pronounced ready to return home. He was allowed to bathe and dress again, then released to go home at the time the King and Ringbearer completed their visits. He stood now straight and gave profound bows to each of them, then turned to find his way back down the city to his home and wife while Man and Hobbit watched after.
You see, Iorhael, how just the willingness to spend yourself for others was itself a sufficient sacrifice at the time?
Frodo could think of no argument to counter the voice that spoke in his heart.