Sam returned two nights before Frodo finally returned to Michel Delving, and found that the spider bite was again draining. Frodo had become aware of it and had tried to cleanse it himself and to keep it properly covered, but how well he’d done was questionable, and he couldn’t say for certain how long the drainage had lasted to date. Sam got it cleaned and rebandaged with a spent leaf of athelas over it, and made certain that Frodo had some of his freshly brewed tea at hand, and Frodo seemed to rest well that night. Sam made a note to himself to remain in the Michel Delving area to be at hand for the next few days so he could check on the wound morning and night, and after a bath of his own fell into his own bed in the room next to Frodo’s and slept deeply.
The two of them rode out together the next morning, and it was plain Frodo was already out of condition. He was tired and grey when they reached the stable in Michel Delving, and Sam saw to the stabling of the two ponies, the removal of the tack, and the grooming of both while Frodo walked slowly to the Council Hole to begin work again.
Isumbard spoke quietly to Mina about Frodo’s condition, and she began sending over offerings of small amounts of food and drink at hourly intervals. By the time Sam finished his own work at the planting Frodo was ready to head for the Whitfoot place and to bathe and fall into his bed, once Sam saw to the bite on the back of his neck. The wound wasn’t discharging heavily, but still steadily, and seemed intent on taking its own time to heal this time. None at the Cottons had been able to tell Sam when the drainage had started, for none had noted it. Mina asked about it, but Sam shrugged. “One of the wounds as he picked up durin’ our journey,” he said. “It opens right regular, it does, and drains, then just sits there the rest of the time.”
“Is that why he didn’t come back earlier?” Mina asked.
“Maybe,” Sam allowed. “But Lily and Rosie both tell me he did turn his leg, fallin’ in the stable.”
Mina gave him a shrewd look. “Seeing as how much weight he’s lost again,” she said, “I find myself wondering just what it was that caused him to fall in the stable.”
The second day Frodo was back the new will of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was laid on his desk, and Frodo read it with growing surprise, his face growing more quiet as he read. With it were letters from Hyacinth and Benlo Bracegirdle and Roto Sackville describing the death and the reading of the will. Frodo read them over, then folded them carefully and slipped them inside of the envelope that had held the will, then slipped the gold coin with the black seal upon it that had been her private bequest to him into his pocket. He signed to Isumbard Took. “I need to get out for a time,” he said. “Lobelia’s died, and I’ve been made the executor for the greater part of her bequests.”
Bard looked at him with disbelief. “You?” he asked.
Frodo nodded. “Read it. I’d never have believed it possible, but it appears that Lobelia did indeed know a change of heart. May the Valar bless her.”
After wrapping the Elven cloak about himself and slipping the water bottle over his shoulder, Frodo went out, and Bard looked after him with concern before turning his attention to the will.
Sam and his helpers were taking a break from their labors to return to the inn for luncheon. As they entered the square before the Council Hole they saw a figure cloaked in grey-green exiting it slowly. Sam paused as he noted that today his Master appeared to be shining particularly brightly, and commented as an aside to the ones closest to him, “You lot go on ahead and get yourselves your lunch, and I’ll see if’n my Master needs aught. I’ll be along directly.” Leaving them to make their way to the inn, he hurried over to where Frodo waited.
Frodo had paused as he spotted the group of Hobbits reentering the village, and smiled with relief as he saw Sam coming toward him. Sam noted the smile, and saw just how pale he was as well. No question Frodo had lost weight again in the past few weeks, and Sam determined he’d not leave his Master for so long again if he could manage it. Yet, his overall expression right now was one of joy, Sam noted.
“Master, has ought happened?”
“Lobelia! You won’t believe it, Sam. But I don’t wish to discuss it here in the middle of the square.”
“Right. Well, come on, and we’ll see to some lunch, if you think as you can manage it.” At Frodo’s brief nod Sam put his arm about his friend and together they turned again toward the inn. As they entered Sam asked the innkeeper, “May we have the private parlor, Bobbin?”
Bobbin was surprised, but thought quickly. “Well, certainly you may, Master Sam, Master Frodo. Come this way.”
As he showed them into the room, Frodo said, “Should my cousins Isumbard or Peregrin Took or Meriadoc Brandybuck come looking for me, please have them join us here, Bobbin.”
“Of course, sir. Now, will you both be wishing luncheon?”
Sam made the decision. “Just some bread rolls and a selection of sliced meats and cheeses, and some winter apples if’n you have ’em, please. And a mug of ale for me and a cup of your wine for Mr. Frodo.” After Bobbin had left, Sam looked at his own hands and sighed. “Can you hold on a bit, Frodo, till I get some of this muck off me? I’ve loam all over myself, I do.”
At Frodo’s smile he went out to the washstand outside the back door to the inn, returning some minutes later looking decidedly scrubbed. Sam sat himself just as Bobbin and the lass Pippa who served part time returned with plates and the platter of requested food. As Sam began seeing to preparing plates for his Master and himself Bobbin returned again with the drinks and a pitcher of water and a couple tumblers. Frodo took one of the tumblers and drained some of the tea from his water bottle into it, stoppered the skin, and took the glass and drank from it gratefully. Finally he began to explain, Sam listening attentively.
“Who’d a’ thought?” Sam asked when Frodo was through, his own look of incredulous amazement a match for Frodo’s own. “Who’d a’ thought the old lass had it in her?”
“I know, Sam. When someone like Lobelia makes such a complete change, there’s so much more hope for the world, isn’t there?”
And more hope for yourself as well? commented the one who argued.
Perhaps, Frodo returned.
The next evening Benlo Bracegirdle arrived with the first of Lobelia’s deeds. Frodo had gone to an early dinner at the Whitfoots’ with Sam before Sam left back for Hobbiton, after which he returned to the Council Hole to meet briefly with Bard and Tolly, who’d come late that day from the Great Smial, having been busy on the Thain’s business earlier. Frodo returned to the Whitfoot’s house upset, and Mina was concerned as to what the Bracegirdle might have said to him.
The following day Merry and his cousin Berilac arrived, and after speaking privately with Benlo at the stables Merry came to seek out Frodo and questioned him closely. When Mina saw them, Merry appeared worried and Frodo had a closed expression, going to his bed soon after Merry left him at the door, refusing any dinner.
The following morning early Frodo, looking very tired, accepted the scantiest of first breakfasts, and armed with his water bottles he went to the stables, collected Strider, and headed back to Bywater, his face set with determination. Mina watched after him with worry, then went in to strip the bed to wash the linens.
Under the bed as she started to sweep she found a single piece of paper. It took a good deal of patience to tease it out from its hiding place, but it proved to be a picture of a great black figure with no head yet a high crown above its massive shoulders, a woman from among Men standing before it with a sword in her hand, Meriadoc Brandybuck behind it with a sword in his own, prepared to stab its point into the back of the knee of the headless figure. She was looking at this when she heard a hallooing from the front of the house, and then Will’s voice answering it.
As she came forward she heard Merry Brandybuck asking about Frodo.
“I’m afraid as he’s already left, Merry,” Will was saying. “But Mina can tell you more.”
Mina tried to smile, although she wasn’t certain how convincing it was. “Yes, do come through to the kitchen, Merry, for I have a question myself.”
“Good enough,” Will beamed at the two of them. “Then I’ll be off to the inn to see Gordo. I find I enjoy being a Hobbit of leisure.”
Once she had Merry seated at the table she asked, “Do you know what Benlo Bracegirdle said to Frodo the other day to get him so upset?”
“No,” Merry said, “but I know my questioning of him yesterday didn’t help matters.”
“What were you on him about?”
“I was wanting to know why he suddenly was refusing to tell me he had been through a bad patch.”
“Did he tell you?”
“No--just informed me I wasn’t his keeper, then went Baggins stubborn on me.”
“Do you have any idea what is bothering him?”
Sadly, his face tight with concern, Merry nodded. “Yes, but I’m not at liberty to say, Mina.”
She decided to take a chance. “Does it have anything to do with this?” she asked, turning over the picture that she’d left there face down when she went in to see who had arrived.
Merry’s face went as white as Frodo’s at the sight of it. “Oh, Frodo,” he whispered.
“Is that him?” Mina asked. “It looks so much like you....”
“No, it’s not Frodo. You’re right, it was me.”
“What’s it of?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. He was holding his right hand in his left and rubbing at it much as Frodo would rub at his shoulder. Suddenly concerned, Mina reached to touch him, and realized his right hand had the same coldness to it she’d felt the night she and Bucca had been drawn to help Frodo deal with his nightmare.
She rose immediately and checked the heat of the water in the kettle, then brought it and a shallow pan to the table, pouring the water into it. When she felt the water was cool enough not to scald she pressed him, “Here, put your hand in here.”
She refilled the kettle and set it again to heat. When his color was finally better she asked, “If that’s you and not him, why are you concerned as he drew this? Did he see it?”
“Not except in his imagination, for he wasn’t there--he was perhaps hundreds of miles away.”
“Did this happen in Mordor?”
Merry paled again. “No--not in Mordor. I never went there.”
“No, he went there with the Ring, though, didn’t he--him and Sam Gamgee?” Then, at his expression she added, “No, he didn’t tell us--we figured it out, Bucca, Aster and me. We figured it out, and Peregrin Took told Bucca as we had it figured right.”
Merry took a deep breath. “Well, Pippin’s the one who seems best able to tell others, him and Sam.” He looked at the picture again, then pointedly away, shuddering. “Yes, that happened, before the walls of the city of Minas Tirith, which is the capitol of Gondor. I went there with the Riders of Rohan to help fight against the army Sauron had sent against it. Pippin was there already, taken there by Gandalf after he--after he faced Sauron himself through a Palantir. Gandalf went there to warn the people of Gondor that the enemy’s force was on the way and to help as he could.”
Mina asked, “What’s the one with the crown and no head?”
Merry’s answer was low, almost a whisper. “The chief of the Nazgul, the Witch-king of Angmar, Lord of the Ringwraiths.”
Seeing him starting to pull his hand out of the water she asked, “Want it heated up, or do you need a towel?”
He shrugged and looked at her. His mouth twisted a bit. “Perhaps both?”
She nodded and brought over the kettle and a towel.
Merry poured a bit more of the steaming water into the pan and placed his fingers back in it. Slowly, deliberately, he told her the story, finishing, “As I said, he wasn’t there--he was in Mordor at the time, trying to get to the Mountain when I was taken into the Houses of Healing with the Black Breath.”
“Why does his left shoulder and hand get the same as your right hand? Did he stab it, too?”
Merry shook his head. “No--he was stabbed by it--just two weeks after we left the Shire. We almost lost him.”
“Bucca tried to explain what Pippin had told him. Something about a magic knife of some kind?”
“Elrond and Aragorn both called it a Morgul knife, a bewitched blade intended to make him into a wraith like them.”
She thought again, and sighed. “So just thinking about the--Wraiths--makes your hand go cold, and his shoulder?”
He nodded. Finally he said, “As we were returning last fall, we crossed the Bruinen, the ford where we last saw them as Black Riders as they’d chased him all the way from Bag End. We crossed there just on the anniversary of the day when he was stabbed last year. He went--he went strange, apparently remembering when he was stabbed, or perhaps the whole nine of them threatening him there as they did. Exactly what he thought of we don’t know, for he wouldn’t tell us. He went all grey, and would barely eat for days. Sam started making his special tea about then and began giving it to him--found some kingsfoil in the ruins of an old Dúnedain settlement and took starts and culled some leaves and began adding the leaves to the tea. Frodo has been drinking it ever since--kingsfoil and willowbark and chamomile usually, I think.”
“Kingsfoil? Does that do any good?”
Merry pursed his lips and shrugged. “Some, but apparently not for everybody who uses it. Let Aragorn or Elrond or Elrond’s sons use it on you, and it’s very powerful. And apparently Sam is able to use it properly for some reason. It certainly helps Frodo.” He sighed. She took the kettle back, filled it again, and put it again over the fire. He continued the story. “Gandalf wasn’t rushing us, considering how Frodo wasn’t eating properly and tired easily. He was much better, though, when we got to Weathertop, the place where he was stabbed. That was on the anniversary of the day on which Lord Elrond was finally able to remove the shard of the Morgul knife from Frodo’s shoulder. Again Frodo went all quiet and somewhat grey. He put his head down as we went by it, and again that night and the next morning he barely ate. He’d lost a lot of weight again by the time we returned here.
“He’s gradually been getting better since we returned--until, apparently a couple weeks ago. Then he didn’t come here. That was about a year after he was--he was wounded in the neck as he was crossing into Mordor.”
“What caused the wound?”
He looked at her. “You’ve heard the stories of the great spiders of Mirkwood Bilbo fought, the ones who bit the Dwarves?” As she nodded, he continued, “Apparently the mother of them all lives in the Pass of Cirith Ungol, and they went into Mordor that way. She poisoned him there, on the back of his neck. Every couple months, it seems, the wounds get infected again and start draining. Neither Lord Elrond nor Aragorn would agree to probe the wounds to see what she might have left behind in the bites, for they say it’s a terribly delicate place to work, and it might leave him crippled.”
“From what Gandalf and Aragorn could figure out, Frodo was poisoned on the thirteenth of March, and then the Ring was destroyed and he lost his finger on the twenty-fifth. I suspect that he was plagued by nightmares and memories on the anniversaries as well as pretty much of that time between. It was the darkest time of all for him.”
“Pippin told Bucca he was close to dying when Sam carried him up the Mountain.”
“Yes, so Sam told us after they were rescued and they awoke. They were both almost dead when they were found, and they stayed in healing sleep for two weeks. Then it took weeks for them to really begin to recover, although Sam healed much faster than Frodo did.”
“He never did truly heal, did he?” Mina asked.
He shook his head, his face sad. “No, he never truly has. It frustrates him so, and he tries to hide it. He can’t eat properly, he has these horrible headaches at times, and we all have nightmares. Aragorn says that it’s to be expected, and that he has them, too, for he’s certainly seen his share of horrid things in his life. He says they will grow more manageable with time, but they’re certainly nasty for us when they start.”
She thought, then asked, “If--if the King hadn’t come to you while you had the Black Breath and healed you however he did it, would you have died?”
“Yes. All four of us would have died had Aragorn not been able to heal us.”
“Yes. He was injured before the Black Gate. A troll attacked their position and injured his friend Beregond, then tried to bite out his throat. Pippin stabbed it at just the right angle and killed it, and it fell on him and Beregond and one other. Pippin’s ribs were broken and his hip disjointed and I’m not certain what else--it took hours to find him. When they brought me from Minas Tirith he was lying in the healers’ tents and he looked horrid.
“And they had put up a canvas curtain about the beds they’d had brought for Frodo and Sam, with just tree branches over the top. Frodo was barely recognizable for days, they tell me. When I got there he was so very, very thin, more so than Will or Freddy when we brought them out of the Lockholes. He barely moved, and I’d have to feel carefully to note a heartbeat. His breathing was so shallow at first you could miss it. They had to feed them sips of broth and water every fifteen minutes for the first three days, Gandalf told me. The next few it was more at a time at slightly longer intervals. It was once an hour, all day and much of the night as well once I arrived until just before they woke. Sam and he were so weak when they awoke, but as I said--Sam got better, Frodo so much more slowly.”
“So now he’s angry with you because you tried to find out if he’d had another bout of the memories?”
Merry nodded. She rose and fixed them both tea and brought out some scones which Frodo hadn’t eaten for breakfast. “They’re bringing over a load of his furniture from Buckland today. Sam wants to move him back into Bag End by the third.”
“I pray it helps him,” Mina said.