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The Acceptable Sacrifice
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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58
58: The Road North

58: The Road North


It had been difficult enough saying goodbye to the Lady Arwen and those of Rohan at Edoras; saying goodbye to Legolas and Gimli as they parted at Isengard had been a wrench, even if they did look to see the Dwarf coming to the Shire in the early spring. But to say goodbye to Aragorn was one of the worst moments of Frodo’s life, worse even than when years before he’d spent his last evening in the Shire with Bilbo.

The Wizard had followed the twins by the King’s side, and Frodo had done his best to give them time alone for words of parting to be said. Then as they paused at the hill where Aragorn indicated he would turn back, finally Elrond had ridden his horse to his foster son’s side. There was little left to say, for they’d spoken long in Minas Tirith, and they had often ridden by one another along the way, although they’d said little. Aragorn looked solemnly into his foster father’s eyes. “Ada,” he said quietly, “I would have you and my brothers know a gentle voyage and a joyful reunion with the Lady Celebrían. I would have you remember me with pride and not grief. I know I would not have become the Man I am without your love and guidance. I so regret that I am the cause of your great grief now, and so rejoice that you have yet entrusted me with Arwen’s love and Light. I know that you remain in my heart forever, and I will bear that love with me when I must leave the bounds of Arda to rejoice to present it before the Presence when that day comes.”

Elrond did not speak, but he embraced his foster son and the husband of his daughter, giving him a kiss of blessing on his forehead before turning his horse’s head North and going on, cutting the ties as cleanly as he could.

Elladan and Elrohir each clasped his hand. “Before we go we will return at least once, Estel,” they promised him. Glorfindel clasped wrists with him and pulled back with a silent bow.

Halladan came to give Aragorn his farewells. “I go to take my brother’s place, my Lord Cousin. And I bear back the joyful word that once again Arnor is a realm under the rule of the rightful King, and part of the greater realm that was and has at last been renewed. Take care of Hardorn--don’t allow him to work too hard. And remind him that Gilmorien awaits him.”

“I will do my best. I have every trust you will do well by Arnor in my name and for your own part as well. It will be a few years before we will be able to come North for the conferences that must happen; but I suspect it will take at least that long to convince the likes of Butterbur and those of the Breelands and the Shire that there is again a King and that their own lands are indeed part of Arnor. And I will ask you at times to come South. But as the greatest population is there in Gondor and it is there that the realm will be most vulnerable, I must be assured that all is stable there ere I leave it.”

“You are right, Aragorn. The Valar guard and guide you and your Lady. That we have such as you two to lead us is a blessing.”

Mirieth, Berevrion, and Avrieth parted with him warmly while Halladan spoke with Hardorn one last time, and the remainder of the Grey Company and those who’d come South for the wedding saluted him as they prepared to return to their own lands.

Gandalf smiled at the King in parting and they shared a clasp of hands for some moments ere the Wizard turned to follow Elrond.

But then it was time for the Hobbits at last to part from him. He had warm words for Merry, and reminded Pippin that he had not been freed from his duty as one of the Guards of the Citadel and of the King’s own Guard. “You carry, Captain Peregrin, the dispatches to be shared with Barliman Butterbur, the Thain, the Master, and the Mayor. I expect you to deliver them once you are certain those have time to read and appreciate them for what they are.”

“Yes, my Lord King,” Pippin had returned, saluting, and at that Aragorn had clasped his shoulder, then that of Merry.

But for Frodo and Sam he could say no more. He took Sam’s hand and held it, trying to convey to him as much love and strength as he could. That Frodo would either die or leave Middle Earth forever and soon would be very hard for the gardener to deal with, he knew. Sam couldn’t help but see that this was true, but would also do his best to convince himself it was otherwise until Frodo weakened markedly. As for Frodo....

They held their hands clasped. Finally Aragorn murmured, “The Valar watch over you, small brother.” Frodo nodded, not trusting himself to speak. “I will come North soon enough,” he added to the four of them, “and I will look to see those I can then. And Gimli will come to you, probably as he has said in the spring, bringing word to you and what he can of what had to be left at this time. But you are always welcome in Gondor, and I pray that when you can you will come South to us in Minas Tirith.” He loosed Frodo’s hand, his glance bidding him his last farewell.

Celeborn and Galadriel both paused by Aragorn and blessed him as well. “Elfstone, through darkness you have come to your hope, and have now all your desire--save for the health of Frodo. Use well the days. We will care for the Ringbearer as he allows us,” Galadriel murmured to him quietly ere she parted from him the last time.

“As he allows you,” agreed Aragorn. “Namarië, my Lady, my Lord. I would have you stay, but know, Lady, you have bound yourself to accept the return to your own people at this time. Stand by my adar, please.”

“I will do so, Elessar,” she promised.

Celeborn sighed. “Kinsman, farewell! May your doom be other than mine, and your treasure remain with you to the end!”

Aragorn nodded his head solemnly. “Yet it is but a short time in the reckoning of Elves I will remain here at all, and soon enough you will be restored to the love of your Lady, even if by that time I am gone from the bounds of Arda. I only ask that there remain at least one to stand by Arwen when my own time comes.”

Reluctantly Celeborn nodded in return, clasped Aragorn’s hand, then turned to ride North after the rest.

Aragorn sat on the hill, his mounted Guard about him, his white mantle reflecting the glory of a red sunset. He removed the Elfstone and held it up, praying the Valar grant its virtue to Frodo to carry him as far as it might. As the party rode North and crested the next rise the four Hobbits paused and looked back, as did all of the Dúnedain and the sons of Elrond, seeing the green glory of the Elessar shining in the King’s hand; and Frodo felt as if he were wrapped in a mantle of that renewing Light for much of the evening’s ride and most of the next day as well.

By the third day from the parting with the King those who led the ride North realized that Frodo was beginning to flag sooner than he had before.

“I don’t understand why he is tiring so much sooner now,” Celeborn murmured. They’d stopped over an hour before sunset, and already Frodo lay in his bedroll, asleep with Merry on one side and Sam on the other while Pippin had gone with those who were gleaning for foodstuffs for the evening meal in search for mushrooms to tempt Frodo’s appetite.

Gandalf looked toward where the two Hobbits sat alongside the third, then looked back at Celeborn. “He has parted from Aragorn and can no longer draw on the Elessar,” he said quietly.

Celeborn was startled. “He has done so?”

Galadriel looked toward Frodo with greater consideration. “He is almost as gifted at drawing on power as is Aragorn himself. He is learning to use the pendant given him by our granddaughter, although he does not fully understand what it is he does or how the stone’s power works. But he draws on our presence to keep himself grounded to recognize his darker dreams as dreams indeed and not reality.”

Celeborn asked, “Did Estel realize that the Ringbearer drew on the Elessar?”

Gandalf nodded. “Yes, and he gave him free rein to draw on it as he needed. It is only now that we are so far from him and it is so long ago he gave Frodo his last blessing that Frodo is beginning to flag.”

Elrond looked at Frodo, his expression solemn. “He has barely spoken since we parted from Estel, and he has pressed himself not to drag on the company. But tonight his strength has taken him as far as it can today.”

Frodo awoke as the meal was prepared, and ate what was given to him, which wasn’t more than he could accept. A couple hours later he was given fresh bread one of the Dúnedain had purchased from the holders of a farmstead they’d passed, and he gladly ate it spread with honey, and then he slept again. The next day they rode for three hours, then broke for over an hour; then another three hours again with a break; finally another hour before they paused for the night. And so the pattern was set.

Often Merry and Pippin took their turns on guard, although none would allow Frodo or Sam to do likewise. The Elves would often gather about Frodo after he’d fallen asleep to sing the songs of healing for him. However, he’d not accepted the draughts since they’d parted from Aragorn, and was adamant that as it could not be proven such helped him overmuch he would not remain dependent on them, particularly as he would have to convince a healer of the Shire to aid him in preparing such in the future if he were to continue to use them.

“And how would that work?” he’d demanded of Elrond. “Will any in the Shire begin to understand what I’ve endured, or how it affected me? Most believe Bilbo made up his story of great spiders and the Dwarves being bound in their silk. If Sam tells of having unwound me from such stuff, they won’t believe it. I doubt any will recognize the bite on my neck as a spider bite. And as for my shoulder and left arm----” He shuddered. “It will be difficult enough trying to convince them that there’s a King once more, much less that we are personal friends with him. Once they learn he was one of those grey-cloaked folk who used to ride the Road and were seen wandering the borders of our lands, they’ll just laugh us to scorn.”

He looked at Pippin and Merry. On the trip to Isengard Merry had described the encounter with the Witch King of Angmar, and afterwards he’d rubbed at his arm and hand until Frodo realized they were almost as cold as his own when the Morgul wound pained him. He’d had nightmares that night, eased by a combination of Frodo’s and Aragorn’s attentions. Then after they parted from Aragorn Pippin had commented that the place was very close to where he’d peered into the Orthanc stone; he, too, suffered nightmares that night. Frodo looked at the two of them, then at Sam. “Aunt Lanti and Uncle Pal aren’t going to understand it when Pippin has nightmares at home, and Merry’s going to find it difficult to explain why the passing of a bird’s shadow is likely to set off times when his right hand goes cold. Pippin’s not going to be able to bear a Yule bonfire for a couple years at best; look how hard it was for him to come to terms with a simple campfire when we left the city. And I doubt Sam’s going to find it easy to explain the scars on his forehead and his temple. Think how much harder it will be to talk--to talk of--of It to those who know nothing about It.” He gave a ragged laugh. “You know what I’ve been through, and more of--of It than almost all others, and I can’t even speak easily of It to you.”

Elrond understood, but was still frustrated.

The morning of the sixth day dawned, and Frodo was troubled. His rest in the early morning hours had been disturbed, although he wouldn’t say what kinds of dreams he’d experienced. That he had true visions and dreams of the future was becoming more evident to all, although he’d spoken only to the Lady of some of the visions he’d had, particularly those of the past year.

He’d eaten some of the remains of the dried fruit brought with them and some lembas offered him by Glorfindel, and had drunk only water. He’d accepted the filled waterskin offered him by Elrohir, but had saddled, bridled, and mounted Strider with a preoccupied air. Finally Sam asked, “What’s botherin’ you, do you know?”

Frodo had shaken his head. “Malice,” he said cryptically. “I sense malice.”

“Where?” Merry asked.

“Ahead of us,” Frodo had answered. “Nothing dangerous, or not as yet; but it’s nasty enough.”

Elladan and Elrohir had listened to the interchange with interest and reported it to their father and Gandalf. Gandalf raised his eyebrows, but said nothing of what he thought might be ahead of them. But they rode with a measure of caution for all the appearance of ease.

The sight of the two ragged beggars ahead of them as they came out of a wooded area was greeted by a distinct hiss of indrawn breath by the Wizard, who gave a concerned look at the four Hobbits before he steadied himself for the coming encounter. Galadriel was still as if watching to see what would happen and how it would play out, and Elrond looked from Wizard to his wife’s mother and back again, then shook his head as he recognized the taller of the two forms as they turned at the approach of hoofbeats.

Saruman also gave a hiss of indrawn breath, but his was as distinctly snakelike as had been the description of him given by Aragorn when he’d discussed the fallen Istari’s release with Gandalf. Gandalf looked on him and asked, “Well, Saruman. Where are you going?”

The encounter was nasty as Saruman turned aside the offer of aid and comfort and offered his insults and dark prophecies to Gandalf and the Elves. “A grey ship, and full of ghosts,” he predicted for the Lady, whose expression appeared to be weighing his words and finding them wanting. But the cracked laugh he gave afterwards somehow wiped away the concern his initial prophecy had raised in Frodo’s mind. Yes, here was the source of the malice he’d sensed; but it was baseless in what he’d spoken so far to Gandalf and the Elves. Saruman had fallen too far to truly offer either offense or curse to them.

Then Saruman had forced Wormtongue to turn about and they’d passed down the line of the party. Saruman pointedly ignored the rest of the Elves and the Dúnedain, definitely looking away from Glorfindel; but his attention swiftly focused on the four Hobbits, and particularly on Frodo. “So you have come to gloat, too, have you, my urchins?” he grated. “You don’t care what a beggar lacks, do you? For you have all you want....”

His comments about lack of leaf and the Hobbits’ supposed lack of willingness to share any with him were directed right at Frodo, and Frodo found himself feeling somewhat amused, as he’d not desired to smoke for many, many months. “I would, if I had any,” Frodo responded, but Saruman looked unconvinced, although his sneer had failed. Frodo found himself remembering how on the trip to Edoras he’d been ready to take all Aragorn said as a healer amiss; clearly Saruman was intent on doing the same with all offers of charity. When Merry had dismounted to rummage through his saddlebags to share the last of the leaf he’d found in the wreckage of Isengard, Saruman had been relieved to turn his attention from Frodo to the Brandybuck, and had grasped the leather pouch greedily and swiftly stuffed it inside his ragged clothing. His last insults had been given to Merry, calling him a thief and making it plain he’d keep the pouch and wished ill on the Shire; but his last looks had again been at Frodo, with a fury aimed at him the Hobbit couldn’t understand.

When they stopped for the night Frodo still found his thoughts filled with images of Saruman’s hatred. Gandalf stood nearby running a brush over Shadowfax’s coat while Frodo groomed Strider. Finally the Hobbit looked up at the Wizard. “He was resentful of all of us,” he said, “and I can understand why he would be so of you and Elrond and the Lord and Lady, for all of you were of the White Council which he betrayed, and you took his former place as the White.”

Gandalf merely nodded in response, his expression carefully neutral. “Yes,” he said.

“He had pipeweed from the Shire, and among the best we produce, in his stores in Isengard, for Merry and Pippin found it there.”

“Yes.”

“He clearly knows about the Shire, claims that the pipeweed was dearly bought, and wished ill on the Shire and on the Southfarthing in particular.”

“Yes.”

“And the main focus of his malice was myself.”

Finally the Wizard looked on the Hobbit with concern. “Yes, Frodo, that is true.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think?”

Frodo shrugged his shoulders, looking briefly away from Gandalf as he thought. Finally he hazarded, “Because since I had It he couldn’t lay his hands on It for himself?”

Gandalf searched his face closely before answering, “I suspect that is indeed why, Frodo. He sent his Uruk-hai to waylay you at Amon Hen, only for them to grab away the wrong Halflings altogether. You left at exactly the right time to deny him his desired prize. He was convinced that you would continue to put off the decision to leave on your own long enough to allow them to capture you. You can only thank Boromir for having broken when he did, for had he not done so you would have been with the rest when they were attacked, probably arguing still as to which path you should take. You will find, Frodo, that Eru uses even our weaknesses for His purposes in promoting our greater good.”

Frodo shivered slightly as he thought on that statement, pulling his Elven cloak more closely around him. “I don’t find that thought particularly heartening, Gandalf.”

Gandalf gave an unexpected laugh. “No, I would be surprised if you did. To realize that we have become so predictable that the Creator can use our own responses for His own ends is particularly humbling.”

“And you don’t find me particularly humble?”

“Ah, my dear Frodo, you are such a wonderful mixture of pride and humility that I’m quite delighted to know you, although there are others who find you most perplexing indeed.”

The Wizard’s expression sobered. “You are right to be concerned for Saruman, but know this--you cannot help him more than he will allow you. He wanted for us to turn on him, and none did, save at the end when Merry bade him return the pouch. Only then was he able to raise the response he wanted. He hates himself, and so seeks proof all others do so as well so as to blame us for hating him instead of owning his personal self-contempt. Yet blame and hatred are not what he needs. You can understand his hunger for the Ring, for you have known it yourself. He does not want to be understood, Frodo.”

“I do not understand--or not completely.”

The Wizard’s smile was compassionate. “Be glad you don’t--not completely. But your understanding as you can give it is what he needs.”

The dreams that night were perplexing, and full of Saruman’s contemptuous eyes and damaged heart. And then Frodo saw himself, and wasn’t certain what he saw, for it wasn’t the Hobbit he’d known all his life in his mirror. He awoke, his shoulder aching, and he clutched at the gem he wore as he’d once clutched at the Ring under his shirt, and closing his eyes, he sensed the Light soothing him.

He was changing, somehow still changing. At times he looked at his left hand and it appeared somehow insubstantial; then he looked at his right and saw the gap where his finger was gone and he’d shiver, but feel real again. He hated the pain and cold he felt at times, but at least they reminded him he was still alive.

When they paused on the borders of Hollin Frodo was glad, for somehow he felt decidedly odd. He looked up at the peaks of Caradhras and seemed to be up there in the freezing snow; he looked at the mountain itself and seemed to be in the eternal dark of Moria; he looked Eastward beyond the peak and could feel in his heart still the shock and grief as he’d watched Gandalf fall, as he’d walked away from the others on the mountainside outside the East door, the tears streaking his face.

He looked at the Lady’s face and seemed to breathe the air of Lorien and ached for it, and yet not for it, but for what Lorien echoed. But what did Lorien echo?

The great Elves and Gandalf moved apart from the camp and went into the wilderness. Frodo would sometimes slip off alone to look at them, sitting so still and unmoving, looking from mind to mind, remembering times past, planning for times to come, concerned for what they left behind, reassured that those they left would care for what remained in Middle Earth. At first he saw only the immobility; it took a time to realize he often caught glimpses of their thoughts, particularly when they focused on himself or the others or on Aragorn or Arwen. He felt the great love they felt for all, and the pride and concern. He saw glimpses of Rivendell and Lorien, of a shining city beyond the glory of Minas Tirith, the beauty of a White Tree of great antiquity and yet utterly full of life, of the Light that permeated all. He heard snatches of hymns and songs of joy, and of the rhythm of the Sea, and his heart ached for it.

The Dúnedain hunted and discussed how they would pass word to various lands and peoples of the changes which had been wrought in the world. Halladan spoke with the four Hobbits of how the Shire was ordered and their place within it, and how they would pass the dispatches to Thain, Master, and Mayor. He and Berevrion and some of the others in the Grey Company described how Gandalf and Aragorn had directed the guarding of the Shire and the Breelands, and spoke of the ruins of Annúminas and Fornost in the North, of how the roads would now be rebuilt and patrolled. They discussed the Quick Post service within the Shire and how it would now be linked with messengers riding the Greenway between the two capitals. “I’ve had my own visions of the rising again of Annúminas,” he said quietly, “and am honored I shall be the primary one to see it done.”

Sometimes Glorfindel and the sons of Elrond would join the twins’ father and grandparents and Gandalf outside the camp, but mostly they stayed with the rest of the party, particularly seeing to Frodo’s comfort. Frodo was experiencing recurring headaches toward evening, and they began preparing an herbal tea which he strongly suspected was a thinly disguised draught; but as it eased the headache he decided not to complain.

Sam found a number of edible plants and mushrooms to add to the meals, but the Hobbits found they desired to go home and experience normal meals in Hobbit-sized homes and sleep in their own beds again. Frodo once again strengthened with the rest, and when at last Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel indicated they were ready to return to their own realm Frodo found himself eager to be off, feeling a sense of urgency.

With sorrow Frodo watched as the party from Lothlorien rode off into Eregion, and they watched for quite some time, until at last they saw no more of them until suddenly there was from afar a great shining light as of a star, and Frodo realized that the Lady had held aloft her Ring in token of farewell. He grieved, for he didn’t expect to ever see her again.

The days of September were golden; but at last came the day the party from Rivendell turned off, heading Northeast toward the Elven fastness at the feet of the Misty Mountains, and they bade farewell to Halladan and his party.

“Will you stop in Bree?” Frodo asked the Northern Steward.

“No, not on our journey North,” he said. “We will pass it and go up into the Angle, then return probably in early October to resume our usual patrols. However, the need is first to pass the word amongst the Dúnedain as to the new order and to hear the reports of enemy activities while we were gone. After all, orcs and goblins and trolls are not totally dependent on the presence of Sauron for their existence, and the folk of Angmar sent forces South to fight for Mordor. They have ever been our fiercest foes from the North.”

Frodo nodded and watched as the party of Men continued up the Greenway; then the party bound for Rivendell set off on their own road through the wilderness.

The weather was becoming somewhat blustery when they reached the Vale of Imladris at last, and Frodo was glad, for the sense of urgency was even stronger; yet he wasn’t certain whether it was focused on Bilbo or on the Shire. He’d done his best not to hold the party back and had ridden for several full days before Elrohir noted he was pushing himself unduly. They rode to the door of the House of Elrond on September 21st, and immediately they went in search of Bilbo. Yes, he’d been aware they were returning and had been advised they’d entered the Vale. He’d obviously intended to meet them at the door, but was so prone to dozing lately....

Bilbo was in his room. He’d settled a shawl over his shoulders and had his silver-headed stick in his hand; and he was dozing in his chair, obviously paused on his way to greet them. Frodo looked on his beloved cousin with relief and grief, for it was obvious Bilbo had aged markedly in the last year and had not a great deal of time left him.

And Bilbo, realizing Frodo was there opened his eyes to look on his younger cousin and heir, and knew equal grief, for he saw the haunted look Frodo was almost successful at hiding, saw the lines of pain, and over the days of the stay heard Frodo’s more whispered nightmares. Each realized that time for the other was very limited, and was intent on seeing to it the other was granted whatever aid could be found.

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