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The Acceptable Sacrifice
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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56
56: To Edoras

56: To Edoras


Mistress Loren had prepared a light first breakfast for the Hobbits, and all were grateful to her. Of all they’d met in Minas Tirith, she and Lasgon were among those they’d miss the most. Lasgon watched the four Hobbits gather their baggage and bedrolls together (new ones for all of them, again much through the agency of the Lord Prince Faramir) with a distinct feeling of loss in the pit of his stomach. So long had he now spent with these, and now they were to go, and it was possible he might never see them again? More he was inspired to join the Guard, the King’s own personal Guard if possible, so that he might travel abroad with the King and perhaps one day visit the land of the Pheriannath himself. He would speak to his friend Bergil, who, after all, was friend to Pippin as well. Both were determined to one day be allowed to travel North in that manner.

At least, Lasgon thought, he had the pictures given him of the members of the Fellowship by Master Frodo, as well as the few he’d found that Frodo had failed to get into the fire of Gollum and other subjects. He would never have reason to forget them, he knew. But as he watched Frodo shoulder his fine saddlebags which had been given him by the King he grieved. He honored all of the four; but his deepest love and respect and compassion had been won by Frodo; and he realized that of the four it was Frodo whom he was most likely never to see again.

He offered to take Frodo’s bags for him, but the Hobbit shook his head. “No, I’d best accustom myself to such things again, Lasgon, for I’ll not have you along the way, and refuse to allow Sam to do all for me as he would if he were allowed. I must take responsibility for myself once more. But, I thank you, and will remember you always. May the Creator continue to aid you to prosper and know joy.”

Frodo looked up into the boy’s eyes, gently brushed the hair out of Lasgon’s eyes, then pulled his head down to kiss his forehead. The boy hugged the slight form to himself fiercely for a moment, then gently pulled away, his embarrassment at how deeply his emotions had taken him fading swiftly at the sight of Frodo’s beautiful smile. “May the Valar watch over you, Master Frodo,” he said. “And I’ll write to you.”

“I’d like that,” the Hobbit said quietly. “Keep a good eye on the Lord Elessar for me, will you?”

Lasgon straightened to attention and gave a salute. “I will, sir,” he said formally. But as the four turned to go up the ramp with Gimli, Legolas, and Mithrandir to their joining of the King’s party he found himself weeping. Mistress Loren had embraced and kissed each of those who’d housed themselves here, had accepted their small gifts, and now stood beside him. She pulled the boy to her side in comfort, and as much for herself as for him, Lasgon realized as he saw she, too, was already feeling bereft as she watched them leave the guest house for the final time.

At the foot of the ramp grooms came forward to take their saddlebags, bedrolls, and other goods, settling them over special rail and bench set to receive them. Frodo thanked them courteously, then turned away to go up the ramp for the last time, looking one last time at the beautiful lines of the Citadel through the branches of the White Tree, which was now almost five feet taller than it had been when found on the side of the Mountain. It wasn’t the same view as he’d had the first time, but was, he realized, nonetheless perfect. He smiled unconsciously, glad to have had the chance to see the renewal of this land, the beginning to Aragorn’s reign, the joy of the Tree. The others saw his smile, including Aragorn and Elrond, who’d come to meet him, and rejoiced to see the moment of joy for him.

A last meal was served to them by the staff of the kitchens, and Mistress Gilmoreth took pleasure in seeing them eat the pastries and cold meats and selected fruits. They would miss the four Pheriannath in the Citadel, and all grieved to see them go, could see the sorrow in the eyes of King and Queen as they looked to see so many go back to their own lands. But although they would be gone for a time, yet the King and Queen would return soon enough; and it was impossible to think there had been a time so shortly before when there was no King in Gondor.

Frodo ate little enough, but appreciated what he was able to accept. After all were done the staff came out to bid farewell to the King’s guests, Pheriannath, Elves, Dwarf, and Men. The Hobbits were appreciative of the caring they’d been shown, and made their own goodbyes with grace and with every indication they would truly miss those to whom they now bade farewell. The King and Queen also gave their own farewells, and the Lord Elessar officially handed over authority to Elphir until his return, which should be in about six weeks all were told.

Master Faralion came forward now, taking leave of the four Hobbits particularly, wishing all of them well. Frodo pressed on him a number of pages on which he’d copied down the lyrics of several of the songs the minstrel had learned from the Hobbits. With a profound bow, Faralion accepted it, and embraced each.

Then all was ready, and all rose to go down the ramp to the Sixth Circle. The wain on which Théoden’s body would rest stood in place near the gate to the Silent Street, and the Warden and porter for the Royal Cemetery stood by it to admit those who must go within to bring forth Théoden’s bier. Merry walked between Éomer and Prince Faramir as they led those who would bear it out of the tombs, and he noted the stiffness in Faramir’s bearing as the approached the House of the Kings, close by the remains of the House of Stewards. Rubble from the fire had been carried away; already masons were carefully rebuilding the walls that would support the central dome under which a new embalmer’s table would be placed. Fortunately, most of the tombs and tables in and on which the honored dead lay had not been seriously hurt; and a lidded sarcophagus had been brought in by the Warden to house what the fire had left of the remains of Denethor son of Ecthelion. Faramir gave a stiff bow of respect toward that building, then another, deeper one to the House of the Kings, whose door the Warden opened, standing aside as his assistants held out lighted torches to bear into the tomb.

Théoden’s bier had been laid on the embalmer’s table, where it had rested since its placement here. Éomer carefully lifted the King’s arms and gave them to Merry to carry, then he and Faramir and four others together lifted the bier, with two before and two behind bearing the torches.

Aragorn and Arwen remained outside the tomb with Prince Imrahil and his wife and children; all bowed deeply and turned to follow the bier out of the Rath Dínen to the waiting wain; there it was carefully laid and secured, and Merry climbed the steps provided to settle the King’s arms in the provided place beside it, then sat on the tail facing back, holding the King’s helm cradled in his arms. It was not the helm Théoden had worn in the battle, for that had been crushed in the fall of the King and then that of the fell steed ridden by the Lord of the Ringwraiths. This was a finer helm that had been worn by the King on days of memorial, and was fit to lie by him in his tomb. The other helm had been given by Éomer to the Halls of Memorial in the Citadel to lie beside the twisted remains of the iron circlet that the Witch King of Angmar had worn as a token to all of the fall of such greatness alongside such evil. Then with a lurch the horses started forward, carrying the bier on its slow way down through the city to the road north and then west back to Edoras.

Grooms came out of the upper stable leading four ponies, one each for Frodo, Sam, and Pippin, and a fourth a sturdy grey so dark as to be nearly black to serve as a pack pony. “Sir Meriadoc’s pony was taken down to the outer stables yesterday with the other steeds that will serve as spares should any fall lame,” the head groom told them. “We took the liberty of fastening the saddlebags and bedrolls to each of the ponies brought yesterday by the Lord King Éomer for the Pheriannath.”

Frodo examined the pony brought to him, his eyes wide with surprise. This was not the pale golden pony he’d ridden before, but a fine bay, its long mane carefully braided with golden ribbons.

Aragorn stood nearby. “I asked Éomer to choose for the four of you a pony he felt appropriate for each, and this is the one he chose for you. This is now your own steed from this day forward, and my final gift to you, Frodo.”

“Oh,” Frodo said quietly, reaching up to pat its nose. “It is beautiful. A gelding?”

Éomer smiled, seeing he had indeed chosen properly for the Ringbearer. “You are indeed correct,” he answered.

“Has he a name?”

“No, that is for you to give him.”

Frodo gave a sideways look at his friend and laughed as he reached forward to scratch the animal’s nose. “Then, I shall call him Strider, for he will travel far.”

Aragorn laughed aloud. “Strider he shall be, then.”

“And I hope that the saddle will be comfortable for you,” Éomer added. “Our saddlers have been pressed to see to it that you all are properly mounted.”

Saddle and bridle were works of art, stirrups and pommel each worked with an inlaid eight-pointed star, the reins and bridle worked with more, a silver star on the headstall and each cheekpiece. On the grey intended for Sam the main sign worked into the leather was a sun in glory; for Pippin it was a silver tree.

Each of the three Hobbits checked his girth, then swung up into the saddle easily enough. In moments the grooms had adjusted stirrups for them.

“And for you, my Holdwine,” Éomer smiled, “Stybba now sports a saddle and bridle worthy of you, although we shall carry it for now in the stores wagon.”

With the three Hobbits riding before them, the party now moved to ride out of the Sixth Circle. Many of those who lived there had gathered near the gates, Mistress Linduriel holding her babe, standing by Tergil and his sister, her parents by her; Eldamir with several of those from the Houses of Healing who were able to walk out to see the King walk by; families of servitors and healers on all sides, bidding farewell to the Ringbearer and his companions.

The ponies had more the look of smaller horses than mere ponies; and Frodo soon realized his had a smooth, even gait and a proud carriage to its head. He’d never ridden a better animal, and the pony quickly developed a deep affection for him.

Éomer walked for a time between Frodo and Sam, watching them ride with a discerning eye. “You have an excellent seat,” he commented to Frodo. “Yes, this one was well chosen for you. He suits you admirably. We have brushes and cooling blankets for you also, in the stores wagon for now.

And so they passed through the city, all gathered along the way to watch King and Queen and their guests prepared to begin their journey. The flowers and sprays of leaves this time were mostly tossed into the wain to lie on the pall over Théoden’s body, although the Queen, Frodo, and Sam appeared to garner most of those presented to the party; yet all the women, especially the Lady Lothiriel, appeared to gain their own bouquets quickly enough. Aragorn looked up at Frodo, indicating where Éomer now walked by Imrahil’s daughter, engaging her in talk of Dol Amroth. “It appears, small brother, that interest has been awakened there.”

“Will Lord Elphir be able to hold it in check, do you think?”

“There’s been a change in plans. As it is his nephew who is to be handfasted to the Lady Éowyn, the Council has determined that Imrahil should go and Elphir remain behind to rule in my stead. They and Galador insist that as Faramir’s closest and highest ranking relative Imrahil must witness the trothplighting.”

Frodo shook his head. “I don’t know if I will ever completely understand the laws of Gondor,” he commented.

“I studied Gondor’s laws during my last sojourn here, and more so in the last few months for the sake of necessity; I begin to wonder if I will completely understand them,” Aragorn returned. Frodo gave a soft laugh.

In the Fourth Circle Master Celebrion, Linneth, and young Meneldil stood together, watching them, waving, and Frodo bowed his head in acknowledgment and farewell, knowing he would not see them again in this world. Linneth hurried forward with something in her hand and held it out to him as he rode by, and he accepted it with quiet thanks. “You will remember us, won’t you?” she asked.

“How could I ever forget you, Linneth?” he asked. “Give my love to your father and young Meneldil--and don’t let him dangle too long.”

She laughed as she slipped back through the crowd. He looked at what she’d given him--a set of glass buttons with flakes of gold in them strung on a stout silk thread. He smiled as he placed them in his pocket. He’d have a waistcoat made when he got home with them on it, he thought. He looked back, saw the loveliness of the girl, the love for her shining in the eyes of the youth, the pride of the father and craftsman.

Fruiters came forward and gave to each of the four Hobbits bags of fruit, it having become well known that the Hobbits were much given to such; one came with a bag of mushrooms which was pressed on Sam, whose eyes lit to receive it; as they went through the Second Circle the innkeepers for the Dragon’s Claw and the King’s Head, who’d converted rooms for use by Hobbits and Dwarves and Elves should they visit the city in the future, came out and gave the Hobbits bags of seedcakes to carry with them.

Gandalf came forward to walk between Frodo and Sam. “It appears, my dear Hobbits, that your appetites have become legendary within Minas Tirith. Can I take those for you and stow them in one of the spare packs on the pack pony?”

“If you please, Gandalf,” Frodo said. “I’ll have to sprout more hands in order to carry all of this, I think.”

“Well, we can’t allow that--it would necessitate the purchase of a whole new wardrobe, you know.”

Frodo laughed and gladly gave the bags he now carried to Gandalf to place in the spare pack, and the others quickly followed suit. Frodo looked at Pippin. “And where did they get the recipe for seedcakes, I wonder? They smelled surprisingly like Bilbo’s secret recipe, you realize.”

Pippin gave his most guileless expression. “Do they indeed?” he asked. Frodo gave a deep sigh and shook his head, then laughed again.

They reached the barrier at last, and the head of the City Guard and Captain Gilmaros together came forward to salute all. “Go well, our Lord King,” the Captain of the City Guard said formally, his stance proud, “and return soon to our comfort.”

The King nodded, his attitude equally formal. “I count the days until I must return. Keep well the city, which I leave in your hands and those of our Lord Prince Elphir while we must be gone.”

Pippin dismounted and saluted Captain Gilmaros. “Captain Peregrin Took of the Tower Guard, going on leave, sir.”

“Your duty for this time, Captain, is to attend on the Lord Frodo Baggins to his home and to see to his safety and the security of your own land.”

“And so I shall,” Pippin said, with a deep bow. “I will return when the time is right.”

“So we expect, Captain. Go now, and may the Valar guard and guide you back to your homeland, then in the future bring you back to your duty here.”

Pippin stepped back, saluted again, then turned to remount his pony. He swung up into his saddle smartly, then turned to look up at the King, who indicated he should go before them. The barrier was lifted aside, and the party passed out through it, the Elves smiling indulgently.

Most of the Riders who’d returned with Éomer’s party and those who’d remained recovering in Gondor waited now outside the city with their mounts and the supply wagons, and grooms came forward with the mounts for the rest of the party, Elves having seen the mounts for their own people prepared.

The stablemen were pleased to see that each one in the party checked over bit and girth, while those among the Elves who rode without tack spoke still to their mounts and saw to it they were indeed ready for the long ride ahead of them. The Lord King aided his wife onto her palfrey while Legolas and Gimli together mounted Arod. The Lady Galadriel brought her mount near Frodo, who was rubbing his leg. “You are uncomfortable, Ringbearer?”

He looked up at her ruefully. “I knew I ought to work at this more and build up my endurance, but I did not. But I will grow accustomed to it again.” So saying he turned his pony’s head northward, Sam following after.

In a surprisingly short time the party was mounted and all took their places, detailed scouts of both Gondor and Rohan going before and scouting eastward. Now Éomer took command and indicated his vanguard should go before all. They were finally on their way. At the gate to the Rammas Echor Elphir and his mounted Swan Knights took their leave, falling back to the city to take up their duty during the King’s absence.

They rode relatively slowly, and didn’t go extraordinarily far that first day. In late afternoon the King ordered the scouts to find a camping place for the night, and well before sunset tents and pavilions were raised and cooking fires built. For Frodo a low cot and featherbed had been brought, which embarrassed him greatly. The King came to the tent set for the four Hobbits and saw Frodo’s thighs rubbed with a soothing ointment, his back also rubbed gently, and then suggested he rest for a time while the meal was prepared. That night, however, Frodo was restless until at last, near midnight, he carefully rolled his bedding and brought it out of the tent, placing it somewhat apart from most of the camp beneath the low boughs of a tree, where he rested more peacefully for the rest of the night. He may not have slept a great deal, but at least he was able to know the night in stillness.

This was reported to the King, who nodded his understanding.

The second night in Anorien again the scouts were sent out early, but specifically instructed to look for trees under which they might rest. Frodo again chose to unroll his bedroll under a tree, and this time the other Hobbits unrolled theirs nearby. The tent was set up with the cot, and there Elrohir saw to the soothing of the thighs for all four Hobbits; but when all began retreating to their beds for the night the Hobbits slept beneath the tree.

Frodo woke once to smell a faint odor of pipe smoke; he turned to find Aragorn sitting nearby, leaning against the tree’s trunk, pipe in hand.

“You are comfortable, small brother?” Aragorn asked.

Frodo smiled. “Comfortable enough, tall brother,” he answered softly, so as not to disturb the rest. “And why are you not by your lady this night?”

“I was restless, and so she sent me out with orders to smoke and air myself before I returned to her. You feel confined within the tent?”

Frodo gave a small nod. “I find I rest best when I can see the stars.”

“Much as it was in Ithilien, then.”

“Apparently.”

“The smoke doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“It was comforting, waking and smelling it, when the wind blows it mostly the other way. And why did you choose to smoke over here?”

The King smiled. “I found it comforting to me, somehow, to watch over the four of you as I so often did when we left Rivendell.”

Frodo gave a soft laugh. Aragorn reached down his hand and took Frodo’s. Frodo was smiling as he drifted back into sleep.

As he made to return to his own tent, Aragorn paused near where Elrond sat near the edge of the encampment, looking out at the night. “Adar,” he said quietly.

“Aragorn,” the Elven lord returned.

“You have been able to ease his hand.”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.”

“I only wish I could ease more.”

“I wish the same, although he is eased enough for the moment.”

“For the moment.”

Aragorn placed his hand on Elrond’s shoulder, and the Elf covered it briefly with his own. “Rest well, Adar.” He withdrew and bowed deeply, and returned to his tent.

The third day they came to the bounds of the Forest of Druadan, and there the King ordered a stop. After a time of discussion, Aragorn, accompanied by the remainder of the Nine Walkers and Éomer, along with their standard bearers, rode to the edge of the forest while certain others took positions along the line of trees. All was apparently quiet; yet from the depths of the woods they heard heavy drumming, now here and then answered there. The four Hobbits looked at one another, for Merry had told the others of the meeting with Ghân-buri-ghân and how the Riders of Rohan had been led by the Woses by way of the old road now lost deep in the forest. Still Pippin afterwards commented that the drumming made the hair on the back of his head stand right up. Aragorn gave a signal, and those of both the Rohirrim and the forces of Gondor who carried horns raised them to their lips and gave a long and compelling call. The hidden drummers gave deep flourishes, and then quieted as if the trees themselves were intent on hearing the words of the descendant of the Sea Kings.

“Behold,” Aragorn called out, his voice carrying far and wide, “now is come to the Forest of Druadan the King Elessar, Lord of Gondor and Arnor. Hear my words! We grant this forest to the folk of Ghân-buri-ghân, to be their own forever; and hereafter let no man enter it without their leave!” Others serving as his heralds stood at intervals along the borders of the woods and repeated his words. As each fell silent drums could be heard near their positions, telling their tale to those deeper in the woods. Then came an answer back, a deep, triumphant rolling of beats, repeated on the hidden drums all along the newly declared frontier. A last loud, satisfied drumming, and all fell silent once more.

At the King’s signal all who’d stepped forward for this duty gave a profound bow to the forest, then turned back to their horses, mounted, and very ostentatiously rode along the edge of the woods going Westward toward Rohan. In the late afternoon they camped a good half mile from the borders of the forest. A half hour after they began erecting their tents and pavilions and setting the horses to graze, one of the sentinels nearest to the forest paused in his patrol of the boundaries of the camp, surprised, and called out. Several, including Captain Hardorn, King Éomer, and King Elessar himself, came to see. A great buck had been laid there in the sentinel’s path, obviously quite deliberately. It was freshly killed and gutted.

Hardorn looked on it with suspicion. “And what is this?” he asked.

Aragorn smiled. “A gift, it appears, from the people of Druadan.” He knelt down, then lifted the deer up so it could be clearly seen. Again he bowed deeply toward the forest, then placing the deer over his shoulders as would any hunter he carried it back to the camp.

The fourth morning of their journey Frodo appeared somewhat testy, and his face was rather drawn. He drank the morning draught brought to him, but his face made it plain he wasn’t particularly happy to receive it. He saddled Strider himself, and appeared to fuss over the headstall. Sam was watching with concern, and Merry quickly gave up trying to find out what was bothering his cousin.

Frodo had eaten barely anything for breakfast, and little enough of the waybread the Hobbits had been given by the camp cooks to tide them through their morning ride. As Aragorn and Éomer were considering where they’d stop for the noon meal Frodo pulled out of the line and rode behind a hedge. Aragorn swiftly dismounted from Roheryn to follow, and found Frodo kneeling on the ground, retching miserably, his pony standing nearby, watching with apparent interest. He was swiftly joined by Sam.

Frodo carried a waterskin over his shoulder, and now used it to rinse his mouth.

“Any idea what sparked this?” Aragorn asked.

“No, not really. I’ve been restless since last evening.”

“Do you hurt anywhere?”

“No, although my neck feels hot.”

Aragorn and Sam exchanged looks, and Aragorn pulled away the hair at the back of Frodo’s neck. Sure enough, the site of the spider bite appeared inflamed and swollen. “It looks as if the wound is once again getting ready to open and drain,” Aragorn commented. “This could be a very sensitive place, and could certainly spark feelings of nausea.”

He turned to the young recruit who’d followed him and ordered that the Perian’s cot be brought out and set in the shade of certain trees, and then ordered luncheon be prepared and that water be set to boil and be brought to him there beneath the trees.

Once he’d brought Frodo there, he was immediately joined by his brothers and Elrond, all of whom examined the raised wound with concern. “The bite of one of the great spiders?” Elrond said, his voice suspicious. “That causes me worry.”

“It has filled, opened, and drained before,” Elrohir commented, “yet between times doesn’t appear to cause him distress of any sort.”

Hot compresses steeped in herbs were set over it, and soon it opened on its own. Elrond cleansed it and bandaged a spent athelas leaf over the wound, then helped Frodo into a clean shirt. He ate some broth and appeared to keep it down, and at last indicated he was ready to ride once more.

They camped later in the afternoon than they’d done earlier, and once again Aragorn checked on Frodo. The wound had refilled with some more matter, but didn’t appear to be causing as much pressure as before. Frodo ate rather more for dinner, then went soon after to his bedroll.

It was yet an hour or more before midnight when he sat up suddenly. Elladan had taken it on himself to sit on watch that night, and so was the first to come to Frodo’s side, although Aragorn quickly joined him. The wound had refilled again, and was draining heavily. This time the wound appeared painful as they tried to draw the worst of the thing out.

“It hurts, Aragorn,” Frodo murmured through clenched teeth.

“I am sorry, Frodo--I do the best I can not to cause worse pain.”

At last it again appeared empty, and Aragorn again set a spent athelas leaf and a clean dressing over it and began to wind a clean bandage over all to hold it in place. Elladan brought Frodo a draught to drink which he accepted with a grimace; he went to lie down, his face still reflecting some discomfort, and Aragorn set himself to sit nearby.

Frodo hadn’t been lying down for more than a quarter mark before he suddenly sat up, the whiteness of his face plain even in the darkness of the camp. Aragorn rose swiftly and helped him to the edge of the camp where once again Frodo became ill. Frodo rinsed his mouth from the water bottle brought to him by Elrohir, and after a few moments tried to drink some. He promptly lost the water also.

Elrond finally came near, noting how the discomfort had spread to the stomach. He and Aragorn together placed their hands over Frodo’s belly, and at last he felt an easing of the muscles there and an end to the cramping. When he again was offered water he was able to retain it. After some moments more Frodo accepted some more, looking profoundly eased. “Thank you,” he said. “I don’t know why I continue to have such distress from time to time.”

Elrond shook his head. “You are better than you were when you were found, or so all tell me. However, your ordeal was prolonged and intense. That you would have long-term effects is to be expected.”

“So all tell me,” Frodo answered discontentedly. “It is distinctly unpleasant.”

Sam had awakened during the bout and had done what little he could. Now he saw Frodo back to his bedroll and once again covered and resting, sitting by his Master for much of the rest of the night.

Aragorn came before dawn with the morning draught to find Frodo was already awake and in a dark mood. “Bad dreams, muindor nín?” he asked.

Frodo shrugged, his face scowling. “Too dark,” he muttered. He accepted the draught and drank it, making a nasty face once he’d drained it. “I grow tired of draughts,” he complained.

“It’s no more than you’ve had for some weeks, Frodo,” Aragorn pointed out, immediately realizing Frodo Baggins was in no mood for being reasoned with.

“I ought to be done with draughts by now,” Frodo growled.

“When the damage is as deep as it has been with you----”

“I don’t care about how deep it is!” Frodo said, rounding on Aragorn. “I’m tired of being ill and being treated as one who is ill! I wish to be done with it all!’

“Frodo, all the draught does is help to keep all more even and calmed for you.”

“And what if I don’t accept the draughts? Will it get worse?”

“It may indeed get worse.”

“And may it get better?”

“Perhaps.”

“But you don’t know for certain?”

Aragorn took a deep breath, trying to hold his own temper. He had long experience with those who were chronically ill, and knew well enough how in time the condition was resented and the treatments also were resented, as well as those who saw to it the treatments were followed. “No, Frodo, we cannot know for certain; but my experience tells me that it is likely you will need these draughts for the rest of your life in order to live fairly comfortably.”

Frodo turned abruptly away. “Comfortably? And what comfort did I feel last night?”

“This draught is not intended to assist with the effects of the drainage.”

“But I still grow nauseous so easily.”

“Nowhere as often as you did even a month past, small brother,” the Man pointed out.

The Hobbit gave a sigh of acknowledgment. “True enough; yet it still happens all too often.”

“I am so sorry, Frodo.”

Again, plainly the wrong thing to say. “Sorry, Aragorn? Then why didn’t you let me go through the Gates, then?” Frodo turned to face the King fully. “You let Halargil go. Why not me, too?”

“It was not yet your time.”

“Yet I could have gone through them?”

“Of course!”

Frodo’s face was haunted. “You ought to have let me go.” He started to turn away.

Aragorn set his hand on Frodo’s shoulder, although the Hobbit didn’t turn around. “Frodo, I called to you, yes; but it was your own choice to turn back.”

The Hobbit kept his attention fixed on what could be seen of the horizon. “I saw your Light,” he whispered, as if impelled to admit why he’d turned back then. “I saw your Light on the Way. I wanted to find myself by it.”

Aragorn gave Frodo’s shoulder a squeeze of assurance, and Frodo looked briefly back, his mouth working slightly, then he turned away again. Aragorn loosed him, and Frodo walked away into the small copse of trees. Sam followed after him, only to be stayed by a gesture. He turned and looked his question at the King, who could only shake his head in reply.

After a time Frodo returned and allowed Elrond and Elrohir to check the drainage of the neck. Little more had drained in the night, and they cleansed it once more and rebandaged it again with a spent athelas leaf over it. He ate lightly of the dawn meal, and after seeing to the saddling of his pony mounted and readied himself for the next leg of their journey.

By nightfall the drainage appeared to be done, and the bite again was beginning to heal over. Elrond looked on it with continued suspicion. “If this were not in the neck I would probe it and seek to find what has caused it to build up as it does.”

“Why not there?” Sam asked.

“The neck itself is a narrow and delicate place,” the Elven healer explained. “Let the probe go slightly wrong, and it can cause permanent paralysis. I do not like to probe such a place unless it is more damaging to allow the wound to remain as it is.”

“I see,” Sam said. “Well, so far it’s built up and drained twice, but doesn’t appear to cause no problems between times.”

“Then Estel has been right to allow it to remain undisturbed so far. We don’t wish to cause more distress in the healing than in the letting be.”

Frodo nodded his understanding.

By the next day the discomfort appeared to be past, and Frodo began joining in the singing that Pippin was leading among the Hobbits.

They were approached by patrols of Riders as they rode through Rohan, some of whom joined the procession bringing the body of Théoden King back to the Mark for proper burial. Local lords offered them food as they passed--more than one butchered cattle or swine for them; many brought vegetables or eggs.

At last they saw in the distance the hill on which Edoras was built. Frodo was amazed as the approached it past the farmlands that supported it and the paddocks in which younger horses were worked. “I thought that Minas Tirith was a marvel,” he commented, “and yet this is as much a marvel, although plainly nowhere as large and complex.”

They were greeted with ceremony, and on the following day the King was laid to rest with respect and grief. The chanting of the harpers and the riding of the Rohirrim moved Frodo deeply; the funeral feast and formal recognition of Éomer’s rule was somehow more intimate than had been that which marked the coronation of Aragorn, and was, Frodo thought, equally moving for all he was not intimately involved as he’d been before.

The chanting of the names of the Kings of the Mark was followed by the trothplighting of Faramir and Éowyn, and Frodo found it again more intimate than had been the wedding of Aragorn to Arwen. Yet all were moved.

“Our uncle, who was ever as a father to the both of us,” Éomer said, “would not begrudge that this night we witness the handfasting of my sister to the one she has come to love and accepts as her husband.”

The response was a general cheer from the company gathered for funeral feast and Kingmaking.

Éowyn and Faramir came to stand together before Éomer and Aragorn together, Imrahil, Erchirion, Amrothos, and Beregond standing by the groom while Lothiriel and her mother stood by the bride along with three of her friends from the court of Meduseld. Aragorn had written the marriage contract which had been reviewed the previous evening by Éowyn and her brother, and it now lay on the table beside the throne of Rohan, before the candle which burned there.

“Let all here know that here has come Faramir of Gondor, Steward of that realm, Prince of Ithilien, seeking to take the Lady Éowyn of Rohan and Edoras to wife. Does any here take exception to this match?”

When none voiced any objections, then Éomer smiled. “Let us see the marriage made then. Faramir, you would take one of our own from this her own land to live as your wife. What do you promise her as her husband?”

“I build for her a home which she shall rule as Lady of Ithilien. I offer her the love of my heart and body for as long as I live, the support of my position and the work of my hands, the honor due her as my lady wife and as Princess of Ithilien as well as being the White Lady of Rohan. My land, my home, my horses--all shall be hers from this day forth; and she shall never want for anything--food, housing, companionship, or love.”

“And you, Éowyn, what do you promise him as your husband?”

“To support him however I can, to rule his house and bring forth his children and see them raised well and happily; to teach him how to rejoice in my companionship; to support him however I can; to rejoice in his love and offer him my own, both of my heart and my body, from this day forward until we must part through death.”

“What tokens do you exchange as the signs of this marriage?”

He gave to her a necklace of garnets as his marriage token; she gave him a collar of golden links set with emeralds.

“So be it. Then let you be handfasted now.”

Faramir grasped Éowyn’s right arm with his left hand, and Aragorn bound their wrists together with the woven cord he’d brought with him, while Éomer accepted the wedding cup from Elfhelm. He held it out to them by its base. “It is through cooperation and learning to work together that you must live from this day forward,” he said. “And so it begins now. Let you each drink from this cup and feed one another at the feast to come so bound that you may know the truth of the bond between you as of this night.”

Each took one of the handles of the cup; she helped him to drink of it, and he helped her to do so after, back and forth until the cup was empty; they kissed one another in token of the marriage between them, then took their places together at the feast beside one another, and throughout must each feed the other as they remained bound together.

Only when the meal was over was the cord finally loosened, and they came before Aragorn to sign the marriage contract, it being witnessed by those who had stood by bride and groom. Once that was done the evening became one of joy and delight, music and drinking and dancing. Frodo was pleased to be allowed to sit at a table on the side of the room and watch until he became fatigued, and a lady of the hall led him to the room where he and the other Hobbits slept during their stay. He looked out to see the stars through the high window, and after changing to a night shirt he lay down and slept swiftly enough, waking to find Gandalf sat watching over him; waking again to find Sam lay to his right and Pippin to his left and Merry beyond Pippin, much as they’d slept throughout their journey Southward. Reassured, he again slept deeply, the light of the stars shining on him.

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