Mina woke up in the depths of the night hearing cries from Frodo's room. She sat up abruptly, at first uncertain what noise had awakened her, listening carefully. Once she realized the source of the cries, she rose quickly. Will woke at that. "Mina, what is it?"
"It's Frodo. He's calling out."
She pulled her dressing gown over her nightdress, and hurried to the room which had once been her son's, finding Bucca was also coming out of his room. He opened the door to reveal Frodo sitting up, his eyes unfocused, crying out in a strangled voice as if he were trying to keep the words from being heard, "They're calling for It, Sam, they're calling for It!" Then he started to crumple. "No, I don't know where it is!" He twisted to the side. "Hold my hand, Sam," he whispered. "Don't let me put It on. No!" He jerked, and cried, "No!"
Bucca looked at his wife's mother, the faces of both pale. Then Frodo whispered something which called to her heart. "Please, Mummy, make it stop! Make it stop hurting."
Mina sat on the bed and wrapped her arms around him. He was pale in the light entering the room from the lantern she always left burning low in the passageway, and shivered as she held him. He looked at her, obviously not recognizing her. "I'm so cold, Mummy. It's so hot, but I'm so cold. How can I be so cold when it's so hot?"
"Shh, Frodo lad, shh. It's all right. Mummy's here, sweet lad," she said gently, holding him close. "It's but a bad dream." She looked up to catch Bucca's eyes. "Get some water heating in the kitchen, as hot as you can stand to touch it," she whispered
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"His shoulder--it's cold--terribly cold."
"Mummy?" murmured Frodo.
"It's all right, dearling. You aren't alone."
"It hurts, Mummy."
At a gesture of her head, Bucca retreated to the kitchen to set the water to heat.
"Where does it hurt, sweetling?"
"My shoulder, where the pale King hurt me. It's all cold again, and it hurts."
"Does it hurt bad, dearling?"
"Yes. You could call Aragorn--he could help. He would come."
"He isn't here now, and it would take too long to have him come."
"I'm so cold, Mummy."
"Your cousin Bucca and I--we're going to try to make your arm warmer, dearling. We're going to put warm cloths on it."
"Yes, Aragorn does that, and Sam does it. It will help."
"All right, Frodo, I'm going to have to take off your nightshirt to do it."
"I don't want you to see, Mummy."
"I already know, Frodo. And I have to do it to put the hot cloths on your shoulder."
"It won't really heal, not in Middle Earth. They told me." His voice was quiet.
"I won't pull the shirt off until the hot water comes, so now just lie back and relax, and sleep if you can."
"Yes, Mummy." He lay back, and closed his eyes, then shivered. She wrapped the blankets close about him.
Soon Bucca was back with the steaming water. She wished she had a hearth in the room. Bucca looked at her. "I built the fire up in the kitchen, and set some towels on the airing rack in front of it to warm." He indicated the small towels he'd brought with him. "Will these do?"
"I think so. Help me get the nightshirt off of him. And know this--he has scars."
Together they sat Frodo up, and after unbuttoning the shirt's collar they carefully pulled it off over his head. "It's so fine," Bucca said as he carefully draped it over the headboard.
She nodded distractedly, her eye focused on the inflamed scar on Frodo's shoulder. Bucca looked to see what had caught her attention, and she heard the sharp inhalation of his breath. "Sun in glory!" he whispered, stunned. He forced himself to look away, and taking a deep breath he dipped one of the towels into the hot water, then wrung it out and handed it to her. She wrapped it over Frodo's shoulder and around his upper arm. He was already wringing out a second towel, and as she wrapped it around Frodo's elbow he was readying a third which she wrapped about the left hand. Then he was going out to refill the kettle and put it back over the fire, taking the nightshirt with him to warm with the larger towels.
Aster came out of their room, pulling a shawl about her shoulders. "What is it?" she asked.
"Frodo's having a nightmare and can't seem to quite wake from it. Can you keep the fire up to heat the house this end, and keep water heating for us?"
They changed the water and towels twice, and finally wrapped the warmed dry towels about him. It was while they were doing this Bucca caught his first sight of Frodo's back. "Who whipped him?" he asked.
"Is that what caused it?" she whispered.
He nodded. "Lotho's Big Men--one of them whipped one of the Applethorn lads one night--said he was being cheeky. That's what it looks like on his back, only this is worse."
Mina straightened, a fury building in her toward those who had whipped her cousin's son. After he was dry she had Bucca bring in the nightshirt, and together they eased it over him, then the blankets. Frodo looked better now, his face not quite as pale. He'd never quite awakened through the whole procedure. She nodded to Bucca as he slipped out of the room, and sat by Frodo softly singing one of the lullabies that she'd heard Primula singing to Frodo when he was tiny. At last, convinced he was deeply asleep, she leaned over him and gave him a soft kiss on the forehead, much as she knew Primula had once kissed him, as she'd kissed Fenton. "Sleep now, dearling," she murmured. "The bad dreams have been chased away." He sighed and turned on his side, turning toward the window.
She went out into the passage and closed the door behind her, then into the kitchen. Bucca and Aster sat at the table, each with a cup of chamomile tea, with a third obviously awaiting her. She sat down stiffly, that rage toward whoever had done that filling her again. "He's my own cousin's son," she said through clenched teeth, "and someone whipped him and jabbed something into his shoulder."
"Who did?" Aster asked, her own face pale.
"I don't know," Mina answered.
"Why?" Aster asked.
"I think," Bucca said slowly, "because he carried Sauron's Ring out of the Shire."
"What?" asked Aster.
"You heard what he said tonight, the stories as he told."
"But how did the Ring ever come to the Shire to begin with?" Mina demanded.
"I think as somehow Bilbo brought it back from his adventure with the Dwarves."
"But that's just stories!" insisted Aster.
"Maybe I used to think as those was just stories," Bucca said, "but I don't think so now." When his wife looked at him open-mouthed, he continued, "You know as how we've always said 'When the King returns' and meant 'never.' Well, there's a King again now, and the four Travelers all traveled with him, know him, honor him, even love him. He even sent those fruits and all for Frodo, and apparently had that fine nightshirt made for him." Aster nodded reluctantly. "Then there's the story about the trolls as Frodo says is true, and that he's seen 'em. He told about them brown clouds last spring, and we all seen them." Again she nodded.
"Well," he continued, "I think he's the one as carried the Ring out of here, and as that's why they left--to get It out of here. I think as somehow--maybe through that old Wizard Gandalf--they figured out as what It was and realized It had to be got out of the Shire, and he took It."
"But he said they took the Ring to Mordor to the fire mountain to destroy It," Aster pointed out.
"But he never said as who they was, did he? Well, I think as I know--I think it was him and Sam Gamgee."
"Hobbits?" Aster asked, her credulity strained.
"Yes, Hobbits. Apparently when Bilbo left the Shire he left the Ring to Frodo."
"But why do you think Bilbo had it to begin with?"
"Think, Aster--what did Bilbo say in his stories as how he beat the giant spiders?"
"He put on the magic ring as he found in Gollum's cave...." She stopped, suddenly beginning to believe in spite of herself. She looked at the mug in her hands, lifted it and took a great swig from it, and started to choke. After her husband had pounded on her back and her mother helped mop off the front of her nightdress, she took a shuddering breath, then turned her gaze back to her husband. "Then--Bilbo's stories--maybe they aren't just stories after all." He nodded. "And he wasn't never mad as we used to think." He nodded again. "And Frodo carried It away, with those strange Black Riders chasing him, across the Shire, then out of it, through the Old Forest. Then that's why they went that way," she suddenly said, getting excited, "to throw the Riders off."
He paused, then nodded. "Yes, that makes sense."
Mina said, "Him and Sam--both of them said something about him getting better in Rivendell, as if he'd been real sick."
"Sick?" asked Bucca. "Sick--or wounded? That scar on his shoulder--it's not real old, but it's older'n those on his back as where he was whipped."
Mina nodded. "He told me--there in the bedroom--he told me he'd been told as it couldn't really heal. It's older than the ones on his back, but it's also more irritated. I think it's the wound that won't really heal. He said that when I told him we'd put hot cloths on his shoulder."
"But why don't he just tell folks?" Aster asked.
Bucca shrugged as he looked down into his mug of tea. "Until tonight, I'd of never believed it," he said simply. "But it just keeps adding up. Just keeps adding up."
Will turned over as Mina slipped back into bed. "Bad dreams?"
Mina slipped into his arms. "Yes, Will, he had bad dreams--real bad dreams. They were memories of--of what happened to him--out there. He was hurt bad out there--hurt real bad. But he's resting better now."
Will held her close, realizing that she needed comforting now. Then he realized something else--Mina was crying. "My cousin's son," she whispered. "They hurt my cousin Primula's lad."
"Who hurt Frodo?"
"Those Black Riders, I think."
Will held Mina closer.
Two days later Bucca had removed a number of shutters that had been damaged during the windstorms of late December, taking them to the carpenter's shop so some could be refinished and then to the blacksmith's to be fitted with new hinges, as many of the old hinges had about rusted out from the years they'd hung on what was the Whitfoot house.
It was shortly after he arrived at the blacksmith's forge that he saw Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took ride into Michel Delving and the common stable. Both were dressed in their mail, and today Pippin wore the black and silver tabard, a dispatch case over his shoulder. Soon they emerged and headed for the Council Hole, stopping when one of the Took lawyers crossed the square.
"Hello, Semi," Pippin called. "Has Frodo gone to the Whitfoots' for elevenses or early lunch?"
"No," his cousin Isemgrin answered. "He's talking to Odocaver Bolger about the state of Budgeford and Budge Hall when they were finally able to see to it."
"Good, then we'll carry both off to the inn for lunch, then."
Pippin and Merry soon were leading Frodo and Odocaver off to the inn; and finally leaving the rest of the shutters with the smith, Bucca followed them, sitting at a table near the door, watching the party seated at the table near the fireplace. Pippin was bringing out a couple of letters out of his bag and presenting them to Frodo, who opened them and read them quickly, then asked a few questions before returning his attention to them, rereading each slightly more slowly, and apparently reading some sections off to the others.
After they'd finished with their meal Merry went with the Bolger and Frodo back to the Council Hole while Pippin took his bag back to the stable. Bucca, having finished his meal and ale, followed after.
"...Then I'll leave you to see to your Jewel, Master Peregrin," Pease was saying as Bucca entered the stable. "Got my soup heatin' up, I do. Want somethin' warm, a cold day like today." Pease touched his forelock and disappeared out the back door of the stable toward his cottage.
Pippin was approaching the stall where his pony stood. "Mr. Peregrin, sir, can I speak with you?"
The Took turned, recognized Bucca, and smiled. "Certainly, Mr. Sandheaver. How may I help you?"
"It's about Mr. Frodo, sir." Something in Bucca's tone of deep respect caught Pippin's attention particularly.
"What about Frodo?"
Bucca paused. "Did he tell you," he began carefully, "about the crate of fruit as the King sent him?"
Pippin nodded. "Yes, he did. Once Aragorn realized that he could tempt Frodo to eat with the taste of the orange fruits he tried to keep them on hand."
"He had troubles eatin' even then?"
"I see. Well, he was talkin' of the fruits as they have down in Gondor and this and that, and as how the ash from the fire mountain helped the crops to grow."
"And he said as how the Enemy's Ring was took there to be destroyed."
Bucca paused again, then asked quietly, "It was him as did it, wasn't it, him and Sam Gamgee, gettin' that thing to Orodruin?"
Pippin's face was very serious. "He told you?"
Bucca shook his head in disgust. "Course he didn't tell us. Can barely bring hisself to speak of it at all. But I can piece things together well enough."
"I'm glad. Does Will know?"
"No--poor soul doesn't understand much of nothin' save that Frodo was bad hurt and is the best thing to walk into the Council Hole in the life of the Shire."
Pippin nodded, obviously reluctant to speak.
"Mina figured it out, though, that night." He described the nightmare and what they'd found when they removed the nightshirt. "What caused the wound on his shoulder?" Bucca asked.
Pippin explained about Weathertop, the Morgul knife, and getting Frodo to Rivendell. "He carried that shard seventeen days before they could open the wound the second time and get it out. Everyone says no one else could have lasted that long, fighting it."
"And you say if that thing'd reached his heart he'd of been gone?"
Pippin nodded. "He would have entered the wraith world, like the Nazgul themselves. He would have become a lesser wraith, under their dominion. They could have ordered him to do anything and he would have had to do it, no matter how awful."
Bucca shuddered. "So if he was so bad hurt how come he had to carry the Ring the rest of the way? Hadn't he done enough, just gettin' It from here to there?"
"The fewer who touched It," Pippin explained, "the better. And the more powerful the individual who handled It the more easily It could corrupt them, and probably the quicker It would have taken them. Frodo had already, without realizing it even, managed to find ways to counter Its influence for simpler things. You won't want to know what It had been trying to get him to do to lasses for years. And Gandalf told me that he'd even found a way to keep It from touching our minds most of the time--Merry's and Sam's and mine.
"Besides," he continued, "no one asked him to do it--he offered to do it."
"He offered?" Bucca was amazed.
"Yes, he offered. Sam said that once those at the Council saw It, they started getting hot and bothered, and even then It was working on Boromir."
"The older son of the Lord Steward Denethor of Gondor."
"Thought as that was someone called Faramir."
"Faramir is the younger son of Denethor. Boromir and Denethor are both dead now." Bucca saw the gravity and grief in the face of the Thain's son and realized he'd seen both fall. Pippin took a deep breath and continued. "All were starting to grow excited, just from seeing It there. Frodo could tell--and--and he'd been carrying It seventeen years, since Bilbo left the Shire. He already couldn't stand the thought of not having It further."
"How'd old Mr. Bilbo give It up, then?"
"He'd put It in an envelope with his will and other papers and intended to put that on the mantel, but kept trying to put it all in his pocket. At last he dropped it when Gandalf insisted it go on the mantel after all; and Gandalf swooped down on the envelope and put it on the mantel before Bilbo could touch it again. Once It was on the mantelpiece, Bilbo was able to leave Bag End and leave It behind. But Gandalf told me that he was almost afraid Bilbo would draw Sting and try to use it on him. Even when It was still mostly asleep the Ring still did Its best to get folks fighting one another for It. At the Council Boromir was already starting to speak of it being folly to throw away the one weapon the Enemy couldn't counter. While we were on our way South It finally worked on him to try to take It from Frodo, and that's when Frodo ran away, knowing he had to take It away from us to save us from Its temptation. Only, Sam knew Frodo well enough to be on watch, and when Frodo disappeared, Sam ran to where he knew Frodo would go, and forced him to take him, too.
"Saruman--Sharkey's orcs found the rest of us. They'd been told to capture Halflings, which is how we're known in the outer world, mostly. The only Halflings they could find were Merry and me so they captured us. Boromir was trying to protect us, so they used arrows on him, and--and they killed him. Last I saw of him, he was beginning to lose consciousness, I think--leaned against a tree and then slid down to sit, leaning back against it. Aragorn said that's how he found him a few minutes later. He had at least five arrows in him, and Strider said at least three of the wounds were mortal. There was nothing he could do to heal all of them."
A tear was falling from Pippin's right eye, and he automatically wiped it away. "So Frodo and Sam crossed the river in one of the three Elven boats we had come down the river in, and they went on to Mordor, while Strider, Legolas, and Gimli tracked the orcs who'd taken Merry and me. It was a horrible journey for us, and worse for them. Sam says that the Ring kept getting heavier and heavier, the further they went, especially after they got into Mordor. The Nazgul patrolled the area all around Mordor, now riding on these huge winged things--not dragons, but like a huge featherless bird with a huge lizard's head. They'd fly overhead...." He began to shiver, and Bucca was reminded of how Frodo would do so at times. "They were horrible, Bucca, horrible and horrifying."
He paused for some minutes. "They went on, on to Mordor. Whatever we did, at least we were never truly alone. They were, just the two of them, until they caught Gollum following them. He'd been back in the Misty Mountains again, and was hiding in Moria when we went through there. Gandalf and Frodo saw him there, and then he was seen on the borders of Lorien. At least Sam, Frodo, and Aragorn saw him while we went down the river, and probably Legolas and Boromir as well. When they crossed the river he followed them still. They made him swear to show them a secret way into Mordor.
"He tried to betray them, and Frodo was--was poisoned by a giant spider, like those in Mirkwood Bilbo told of. Sam thought he was dead and tried taking the--the Ring and going on. But then he heard orcs talking about finding Frodo's body and how the poison was intended to paralyze him for a time, and he realized he had to rescue him. So he crossed into Mordor carrying It and had to find the way to get to him in an orc tower. He managed to find Frodo and got him out of there, and Frodo took the Ring back.
"Frodo became weaker and weaker, the further they went. He was almost dead when they made it to the mountain, and Sam had to carry him up it until Gollum caught up with them again and attacked them once more. Sam stayed back to fend off Gollum, and Frodo was able to go on into the Chamber of Fire--and the Ring took him at the last. He--he put It on, and one last time Gollum attacked him and took It by force--then he fell in."
Bucca considered. "He said as it was almost by accident."
"Gandalf and Aragorn say the same--all three were needed to destroy It--Frodo to carry It, Sam to get them there, and Gollum to take It actually into the Fire. Gandalf says no one save Sauron himself could have withstood the Ring's will once they got into the Chamber of Fire--and he wouldn't have wanted to, since his will and the Ring's will were the same. Even Isildur fell to It there, three thousand years ago, which is the only reason Frodo had to take It now. I think Strider used to blame his ancestor--until he saw what It did to Frodo."
Bucca looked at Pippin's livery. "That a uniform or something?"
"Yes, the garb of a Guard of the Tower."
"You a soldier now?"
"Yes, Merry and I both are. I'm a knight of Gondor and a Guard of the Tower--I'm a captain, actually--and one of the King's own personal Guard. Merry is a knight of Rohan and Holdwine of the Mark, for he rode to the battle with their Men and the Lady …owyn and fought with her, saving her life in the end and helping destroy the chief of the Nazgul." He drew straighter. "But Frodo and Sam--they have been made Lords--Lords not just of Gondor and Arnor but of all the Free Peoples of the West--Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, Ents, and Eagles. They won't tell you about it unless you insist, but they are."
Bucca considered all this again. "Explains a lot, it does."
"Yes. But please don't let him know you know--it embarrasses him. And he doesn't want to remember it."
"Problem is, though," Bucca said, "is how is he supposed to forget something like that?"
Pippin nodded his agreement.