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The Acceptable Sacrifice
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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91
91: Fading

91: Fading


It was harder to rebuild his endurance each time he had a return of the memories in such detail. And this time he could no longer avoid the fact he was now indeed fading. He didn’t want to fade--not now, now that he again had that family he’d so desired for so long--a father, a mother, a child, and himself as the loving uncle. But he was fading anyway, whether or not he desired it.

His sleep was now troubled more often than not. He could become winded just walking to the front parlor. He couldn’t eat near enough, and finally admitted it openly to Sam.

The next morning there was a tray by his bed when he awoke, having finally fallen asleep only an hour before sunrise. On it were curds and whey, a boiled egg, and apple juice. He was able to eat it all, although slowly. He rose and went to the privy, and on entering the kitchen afterwards found a plate lay there with a slice of sweet morning cake, a small bowl of strawberries sent from the glass house belonging to Brandy Hall, and a mug of Sam’s tea. And so it was throughout the day, a small amount every hour. And so it was the next day, too. Sam or Marigold would bring it, set it beside him, take the plates away only when they were empty.

On the fourth day after the birth Young Tom came to fetch Marigold and see his niece for the first time. “She’s a right beauty, she is,” he’d declared. He then looked at his own bride. “When we have our first, I hope it’s anywhere near as fair, love.”

“I certainly hope so,” Marigold agreed.

On April sixth the Cottons, Merry, Pippin, Folco, and Sam’s own family gathered at Bag End for Sam’s birthday, a quieter one than last year out of deference for the new bairn. All competed to hold the child, to stroke the soft golden hair on head and feet gently, to look into her eyes and see her looking back at them with wonder. The Gaffer held her the longest, thrilled at this newest grandchild, calling her all the soft names common between grandparents and their granddaughters in the Shire, promising to teach her how to handle spade and garden fork once she was old enough. Sam had given his Master a new garden chair, and Frodo sat in it throughout most of the party, the orange kitten on his lap much of the time, usually sipping from a mug of Sam’s tea.

Rosie had a pair of new chairs--the rocking chair in the kitchen had been replaced with a softly cushioned one in which the new mother could expect to sit comfortably while meals cooked about her, her bairn in her lap; and there was also one of woven wicker for use in the garden for when she came out to watch Sam work and talk with him during the day.

Frodo had ordered a new chair for Sam as well for the parlor, simple in design and yet quite strong and well constructed, comfortable for the gardener to settle into when they sat before the fire after the evening meal. It had been delivered the previous evening, and Sam was well pleased with it.

Aragorn had sent packets of seeds of wildflowers from one of the places of refuge that he and Arwen had begun visiting regularly when they needed to escape Minas Tirith for a day or two. Sam was again pleased, and was already speaking of planting them in a protected area in the partial shade of the hedge of berry bushes on top of the Hill.

As May settled her dad back into his hole that night, however, he commented, “Mr. Frodo--he’s doin’ poorly. Will hurt my lad bad, his Master leaves him. Will hurt him bad.”

“And what makes you think as he’s doin’ poorly, Dad?” May asked him.

The old Hobbit shrugged. “Mebbe it’s just ’cause I ain’t around him often or nothin’, but he’s lost weight again, his eyes is shadowed deep, and the melancholy’s took ’im. You can see it, you look close. He’s like he was afore he left last time--lookin’ at all, storin’ it up in his heart, makin’ certain as he’ll take the memories of the good things with him.” He shook his head, already feeling pain for what his son would lose. “He was hurt terrible bad out there, you know, May-lass. Was hurt terrible bad. He’s tried to come back, he has, but he’s realizin’ as it ain’t goin’ to work for him--not this time. Bet as his heart is just about to give out.”

May was taken aback by her father’s observations. Since his hearing had started going on him many had come to think of him as going simple minded--but it wasn’t true. Get him in a quiet enough place and he could make out what was said, and there was no question he spoke sense most of the time. But as she wished her father good night and started back to her own hole and family, May thought on what she’d seen of Mr. Frodo that day, and realized the Gaffer had the right of it. She looked over her shoulder back toward the Hill as she paused outside her own place, her own heart aching for Sam and his Master.

*******


“Hello, Mr. Baggins,” Timmins said. “Want a light ale?”

Frodo smiled as he looked up into the eyes of the server at the Ivy Bush. “No, no ale today. Tea, I think. And maybe a couple boiled eggs and a slice of toast?”

Timmins sniffed. “Not enough to keep a bird alive, Mr. Baggins, sir. You certain as you wouldn’t want a pheasant pasty? My Mag’s made up some fine ones--quite rich. Lots o’ mushrooms in them.”

Frodo was so tempted, for he’d always loved Mag’s pasties. Still he shook his head. “Don’t think so today, Timmins. Just the eggs and a slice of toast.”

The serving Hobbit shook his head in reproof. “How many minutes on them eggs, then?”

“Five will do, I think.”

“If you say so.”

When the eggs came, however, they came with slices of pears that had been preserved in syrup, and he’d slipped on a small slice of ham and two thick slices of toasted bread spread with strawberry jam. Frodo shook his head, knowing he was unlikely to be able to keep it all down. He forced himself to keep to the two eggs and the slice of toast he’d ordered. Then he tried a bite of the pears. He finally managed to eat the pears; but when he went to rise Timmins was back with a plate of apple crumble. “Mag insists, Mr. Frodo--says you’re far too thin. No, no charge--Mag insists.”

Frodo ate a third of it, then rose to thank Timmins, paid his bill, and walked out. He did his small amount of shopping and started back toward the Hill--only to find suddenly he was terribly nauseous. He hurried behind a hedge at the edge of the common where he lost what he’d eaten.

He knelt in the shade of the hedge, retching long after his stomach was empty, his face white, his body shaking. He felt weak and exhausted. At last he laid himself down, crawling to the roots of the shrubs making up the hedge, and lay there, wrapped as fully in his Elven cloak as he could manage, his basket with his parcels lying beside him, almost forgotten.

*Look at you, the Lord Frodo Baggins of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, lying in the dust, a wretched, crawling, hole dweller, barely worth the attention of those seeking to keep their feet unsoiled.*

Usually he heard that voice now only in his dreams, although it had been commonly enough heard as he bore the Ring into and through Mordor.

Suddenly he was angry. “I thought I wanted you--that your presence meant I wasn’t truly alone?” he demanded in a fierce whisper through clenched teeth. “Why in Middle Earth I ever thought that comforting I have no idea!” He struggled to his hands and knees, and finally, clinging to the hedge, to his feet. Somehow he managed to pick up the basket and headed, slowly, partially stumbling, home to Bag End. He went up the back way to the door off the kitchen, dropped the basket on the settle, turned back to the bedrooms, found his way to his own room, went in, collapsed across the bed. “If I had you in my hands now in the Sammath Naur,” he said, “I’d certainly not let you take me, you foul thing! How you cozened me!” Lying there, breathing in harsh gasps, he repudiated Sauron’s Ring, hating It, detesting It, berating what It had done to him and to all around him, rejoicing It was gone. “I wanted you? I wanted you?! Just so you could belittle and destroy me?”

Something that had remained coiled in him for years, wound tighter and tighter all during the time he’d carried Sauron’s Ring, suddenly broke free; and there were those who watched from a distance who felt relief that more of the spell that had held Frodo bound to the Ring had been released. Yet at the same time the violence of his fury raised its own concerns.

Rosie, having finished her work and nursed Elanor, sat in the parlor, Elanor’s cradle by her foot, woolwork in her hands, waiting for Mr. Frodo to return from the village. It was the first he’d appeared willing to walk beyond the Hill since she and Sam had gone to her parents’ home, and she was concerned, hoping he’d not pushed himself too far too quickly.

She herself was still recovering from the birth of her first child, and was finding herself apparently needing whatever sleep she could snatch; and as she waited she dozed, although her attention remained focused on the bairn in her cradle and on the door. Sam had gone into Bywater for the day to assist in the care of the Battle Garden, after which he was to go to Overhill to meet with the nurseryhobbit there about bedding plants wanted later in the season, for after the mealyworm problem the previous year Sam wanted to inspect all plants scheduled for delivery to Hobbiton, and particularly, of course, to Bag End. She roused, thinking she’d heard Mr. Frodo come in, but no one was in the entranceway or passage, and she decided she must have been mistaken.

After a few moments she rose and stretched, then reached down and picked up the cradle to take with her to the kitchen, for it was time to begin preparing another meal. She’d started the kettle and checked the bread rising on the work table near the ovens before she noticed the basket lying on the settle, noting the dirt and grass and single dried leaf clinging to its side, and the dirt smudging two of the paper-wrapped parcels on the same side. “What?” she said, and slipped down the passage to Frodo’s room, noted him lying on his bed, a concerned kitten beside him; the painful breathing, the greyness of his complexion, the leaves similar to the one on the basket in his hair and clinging to his cloak.

“Master Frodo!” she exclaimed. “Master Frodo--is aught the matter?”

His eyes were full of fury, although not, she realized, at her. “It’s nothing, Rosie,” he insisted.

“I’d not say as it was nothin’, sir, with you lookin’ as if you’d just crawled out from under a hedge.” And at the rising spots of pink on his cheeks she realized she’d gotten it right, that he had indeed, for some reason, been beneath a hedge. Looking at the splashing on his cloak, she realized he’d lost his meal again. She went into the kitchen and heated some of Sam’s tea, adding in a bit of ginger, and brought it back.

He was sitting up now, running his hand through his hair, brushing out the leaves that clung to it, the greyness slowly receding. She carefully unfastened the cloak and took it to sponge clean, then came back to help him under the covers. Not certain why she did so, she took up the glass phial that lay on the bedside table and set it near the corner, close enough for Frodo to easily grasp, and then placed the small, silver-covered book there by it. “Perhaps a bit too soon goin’ into the village?” she asked. “They give you more’n you asked for at the inn, did they?”

Reluctantly he nodded. “I’ll go and get you summat as will go down easy, then, Master,” she said gently. “It’s a right pain for you, isn’t it, needin’ so often to watch what you eat lest you lose it.”

Soon with his tea down him and a cup of broth and a soft roll by him, he relaxed, but after Rosie left him he lay quietly weeping. His chest hurt terribly, with another knot of pain in his gut. Somehow he’d let go much of the weight of the Ring that day; but without realizing it some of its influence had shifted slightly, seeking a different hold on him.

*You are pathetic--can’t even eat anywhere near a normal amount, needing to be coddled at all turns....*

He certainly couldn’t argue with that.

*You’re naught but a burden on all, you know.*

Again he couldn’t argue.

His stomach spasmed, and he was afraid briefly he’d lose the little he’d taken in, but after a moment it relaxed and he sighed with relief. He reached up and took the phial in his hand, brought it down to hold to his breast, feeling somehow relieved as it began to softly glow. With his other hand he fingered the pendant the Queen had given him, and the pain slowly receded, and with it the anger and frustration, although it wasn’t completely gone when at last he relaxed into sleep, remaining tucked into a corner of his consciousness. Somewhat reassured, the kitten curled up by his side.

Love given freely is never wasted, Iorhael.

Frodo quietly set that thought opposite the thoughts indicating he was a burden, and in his dreams contemplated it in the Light of the Phial of Galadriel.

*******


Over the next week the pain in his gut and another in his head came and went, and were accompanied by fevered dreams. How he wished he had Aragorn by him! But although he knew the sons of Elrond would come if he wished, he didn’t summon them, hoping to brave it out. But the pain worsened until he thought it would drive him mad. Why, he wondered, do I have to hurt so? Why the constant pain?

*You are but a burden to all you know.*

I would not be a burden on any.

*Then how will you manage to lift the burden from them?*


Frodo considered this question.

Child, is it a burden to care for one so well beloved?

Which voice should he listen to? Unfortunately he found himself being convinced by the echo of the Ring.

He hid it from Rosie and Sam, not wanting them to know he was not recovering as he had before; but even they couldn’t miss the wincing when doors or curtains were opened, when a loud noise was suddenly heard, or he stood too abruptly. He’d even begun closing his bedroom curtain at night if the moonlight was bright, something he hadn’t done since he returned from Gondor.

The next time he went into Hobbiton he didn’t bother with the Ivy Bush, but did make a point of visiting Violet Sandybank, Drolan Chubbs’s fellow healer in the village.

“Mr. Baggins?” she asked in surprise, for the Bagginses had always used the services of the Chubbs healer.

“Drolan wasn’t in,” Frodo said, which was partially true as he’d just seen Drolan going into the Ivy Bush with his cousin from the Row to get lunch.

“Is there anything in particular that is bothering you, Mr. Baggins?”

“I’ve--I’ve been in a good deal of pain recently--headaches, you know.”

She looked at him carefully, and there was no question he wasn’t himself as she remembered him. “Well, come in, come in--let’s not do business here on the doorstep,” she said fussily as she drew him into the room where she met with patients when they came to her home. Once he was seated she drew her own chair nearby. “How frequent are they?” she asked.

He grimaced. “They come and go, sometimes two or three in a day, other days maybe but one, but it can be--bad while it lasts.”

“Do you have one now?”

He nodded, carefully, she noted. She checked his eyes, and noted the avoidance of a light shining into them. She dropped a book on the floor and wasn’t surprised when he jumped at the noise, actually wincing.

“Such headaches as these tend to happen more in ladies than in gentlehobbits,” she told him, “but that’s not saying as they don’t happen to gentlehobbits, too, on occasion. Do they disturb your sleep?”

“Everything disturbs my sleep,” he commented testily.

“Nightmares?”

He nodded, rubbing at his shoulder.

“What’s wrong with your shoulder?”

“I--was wounded there, two years and a half ago.”

“Hasn’t healed right?”

“They say it won’t properly heal here within Middle Earth,” he sighed.

“It aches?”

“Yes.”

“Badly?”

He sighed again. “Yes--very badly.” He didn’t stop rubbing at it.

She considered. “Which aches the more--the head or the shoulder?”

He gave a small shrug. “Hard to say. All I can say is that they seem to set one another off.”

“Which have you had longer?”

“The shoulder.”

“Injured the muscles?”

“It almost killed me, or the next best thing to it,” Frodo said, one cheek twitching. “I’d thought perhaps poppy juice might help me.”

Violet thought carefully. “Poppy juice would be indicated for the shoulder,” she said slowly. “It could help with the headaches if they are severe--it will help you sleep, at least. But it wouldn’t necessarily be good for the nightmares. Just the confusion it can cause can make such worse, you see.”

He thought for a moment, and then said, “I’d be willing to chance that.”

She considered him. “You don’t want to use it often, you understand, and you don’t want to use very much of it at a time. Very much can be very bad for you, and if you use it often it can make things worse instead of better.”

He nodded his understanding. Finally he paid the fee requested and went away with a small vial sealed with a blob of glass melted onto its neck, a plan beginning to take form in his mind. He didn’t wish to follow through upon that plan, but he had no idea how much longer he could bear the pain, for it had become increasingly intense over the last few months.

*******


He was often feverish at night, and the nightmares were becoming increasingly frequent, and more and more disturbing.

He was standing, barely balanced, on the knoll at the foot of Orodruin, the river of molten lava rolling slowly, inexorably, around its base, cutting them off. A wave of fire was growing, seeking to wash over him and Sam--except Sam had become a towering shape of shadow and flame, crowned by lightning....

He stood in a circle of light, not the healing Light that he’d once known when young, but a harsh, accusing white. Beyond that light were vast throngs of those who’d died because he took so long fulfilling his duty, glaring at him, shouting their hatred of him, abusing him because he’d not come in time.

His mother stood on a small hill, surrounded by flowers, smiling; but when he moved toward her the flowers proved to be as swollen with corruption as those of the Morgul Vale, and her face melted away to show the hideous visage of a leering skull.

He’d taken It and had become the Lord of the Ring, and Aragorn knelt before him in supplication; only now he was denying the spiritual brotherhood between them, lifted his hand, and lightning struck the Man, reduced his flesh to nought, left only disconnected bones, Anduril’s sheath lying partially supported by the grinning skull.

Sam lay, tightly bound, hand and foot, on the rags along the one wall of the chamber at the top of the Tower of Cirith Ungol. An orc holding the many-tailed lash which had been used on him stood, raised the lash, brought it down on Sam’s naked back and side. He’d called out, “No!” and the orc turned his head to look at him, and he saw the orc had his own face.

He lay suspended in darkness and nothingness--well, not quite nothingness, for he was surrounded on all sides by It, It in all sizes from small enough to fit one of Elanor’s tiny fingers to large enough to ride on the finger of an Ent or a troll. He couldn’t look anywhere without seeing It. And then each rendition of the Ring changed, each becoming in its turn the Eye.

He lay, torn and bleeding, at the foot of a downed tree in the Woody End. Sam was walking by leading Bill, panniers of young trees and flowers such as grew outside his bedroom window on the pony’s sides. Sam would reach into one of the bags or the other and would scatter the plants over the land, but he wouldn’t look at Frodo. “Sam, you must help me!” But Sam finally looked at him with dead eyes and passed by, ignoring him.

He stood upon the edge of Sauron’s Place within the Sammath Naur, looking down, and the stone below his feet crumbled away and he fell, the heat from the molten rock searing him, but never consuming him or ceasing until he woke, crying out and trembling.


“Sam, this is the fourth time tonight he’s woke hisself up, callin’ out like that.”

“I know, Rosie. But I don’t know what to do! I’ve put athelas leaves into the kettle there and let it boil, but it don’t seem to be enough. That headache as he won’t admit he’s havin’ is gettin’ worse and not better.”

“You think as maybe he needs more willowbark in his tea?”

“I’ll try it,” Sam said, and he went to the kitchen to prepare a new batch. Then, thinking, he prepared a hot compress soaked in water in which athelas and comfrey had been steeped, brought both the tea and the compress to his Master’s room with extra pillows, had Frodo drink the tea and then lie back down, face down, his face lifted up so he didn’t half smother himself against the mattress as Sam rolled the neck of the now loose nightshirt away from the almost fleshless shoulders, pulling away the hair to expose the spider bite. As he’d begun to suspect, the bite was inflamed again. He laid the compress on the wounds, whispering the invocation Frodo had once inscribed at the beginning of Menegilda’s herbal as he held it there. When he finally lifted it away as it began to cool, the wound at last opened, and he was able to clean it, bandage it, and at last Frodo knew some relief. Again it hadn’t taken the usual two months for the wounds to once again fill and begin to drain. He shook his head in disgust at the matter which drained out, wishing someone would just probe it and get out whatever was down in there in the depths of the wound that the infection seemed to gather around again and again.

Early the next morning Sam brought a mug of the other draught, the one intended to fight infections, and Frodo drank it with no complaints. After two days he appeared better, although Sam insisted he continue drinking the draught twice a day for a week. While he was yet abed Rosie would bring Elanor to be with him while she must be busy elsewhere about the smial, and Frodo held the bairn gently, finally beginning to sing to her the songs he used to hear Mistress Linduriel sing to her own children, there in the Sixth Circle of Minas Tirith; singing the lullabies his own mother had sung to him when he was a little one, the ones Aunt Esme had sung to Merry, and Aunt Eglantine used to sing to the lasses and Pippin, the ones Rosie sang also. The pain in his gut eased, and the nightmares grew fewer in number.

Your love helps her grow, Iorhael.

He smiled, caressing the bairn’s cheekbone as she lay with her head pillowed on his arm. He settled himself more gently, keeping her carefully surrounded by his arm, drifted off to sleep, a gentle smile on his face as he dozed.

*******


“Is he on top of the Hill again on such a glorious day, Sam?” Brendi asked of the gardener, who was trimming the hedge.

“No, Mr. Brendilac, sir. He’s not been--not been up to that for some months. He’s back in his own bit of the garden, he is.”

Brendi was surprised and dismayed. “He indicated when I saw him in January he thought he was basically over the ills of the winter.”

Sam’s face remained solemn as he gave a faint sniff. “He might of felt over the ills of the winter, but he’d not yet started on those of the spring, sir. He’s back through the garden, down not far this side of the toolshed, where you see the bushes growed up high as Strider’s own head and a bit of a walk done in crushed white stone headed toward the outer hedge, which is right tall at that point. Likes to sit there of the mornin’s and write, he does.”

“What’s been bothering him, Sam?” Looking at Sam’s expression, it had to be serious.

Sam shrugged. “I think, Mr. Brendi, sir, as I’ll let him tell you. He’s often convinced I don’t even notice there’s aught wrong with him, you see.”

“He can’t truly be convinced of that, can he, Sam?”

Sam sighed and looked off toward the water. “He’s a stubborn Baggins, you must understand. That’s what he wishes as was true.”

“I see,” Brendi said, not really seeing at all. “I’ll find my way to him, then.”

“Do that, sir, and remind him to eat what’s been put by him, please.”

That sounds ominous, the lawyer thought as he once again found his way through the gardens. He found the path of crushed white rock leading past the bushes, so much higher than they’d been last year, and turned left toward the hedge, winding past the forsythia and quince until he found himseself in a narrow enclosed place where Frodo sat at a table topped by a tray, the two stacks of paper in front of him, writing industriously. He raised his face, and Brendi could see that Sam had every reason to be concerned. He was dressed in still another new suit of grey, but this one didn’t appear to make him seem to shine as had the one he’d worn to the banquet before Yule. No, in it he just appeared subdued.

“Well, look at you, now,” Brendi said. “Another new suit?”

“Hello, Brendi. Yes. I’ve been--shrinking out of the rest, I fear.” Frodo had obviously decided not to try to pretend nothing was wrong. Beside him on the table were slices of winter pears and a cup of juice and some thin slices of ham.

The lawyer looked at the small plate and its contents, then back at his cousin. “Sam asked me to remind you to eat what you had by you.”

Frodo gave a small shrug. “I have been as I’ve been able.” He sighed. “My stomach has been giving me fits again for the past few weeks, and I don’t try to convince even Sam that I’m eating properly. Although it is a bit better. At least this is my third meal today.”

“All so small?”

Frodo looked down at the plate. “I eat what I can when I can, Brendi.”

“Just how often do you seem to get ill?”

Frodo shrugged again. “In October and in March. On the anniversaries of when I was stabbed with the Morgul knife, which tends to linger through till the anniversary of when the shard was removed on the twenty-third; and in March, starting on the anniversary of when the spider bit me until the twenty-fifth, the anniversary of when the Ring was destroyed. I don’t stay terribly ill after the first day, and can hide a good deal of it--unless you’re there just as the worst memories hit me. And then, usually but not always, once every two months when the spider bite drains again.” He sighed. “This last time, though, it barely was a month before it drained again.” He capped the bottle of ink by him and rose. He looked down at the tray that sat atop the table, then back at his cousin. “Would you carry that for me, Brendi?” With the lawyer following behind carrying the tray he led the way back into the smial and the study, where he took the things from the tray and placed them where they belonged on the desk, then at last took the tray and set it on end between the desk and the wall. At last he sank heavily into the desk chair. “There’s something I’d like you to do for me, Brendi. I’ll be rewriting my will over the next few months and then forwarding it to you for you to check over, but I don’t know the formalities of writing out the papers for adoption.”

“Adoption? Do you really feel you need to adopt your young cousins? They are the closest relatives to you, after all.”

“Not Fosco and Forsythia, Brendi--I’m adopting Sam as my heir.”

Brendi was shocked. “Why would you adopt Samwise Gamgee?”

“Because he’s been closer to me than any brother for years, and he almost died to see me to the mountain and back. There’s a good reason why he’s been made a Lord of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, Brendi.”

“He was made such a lord, but not you, too?”

Frodo looked toward the hallway. “We were both made such, Brendi,” he said finally, his voice low.

Brendi looked at Frodo for some minutes. “At last you admit it? Why haven’t you told me before?”

“Because I don’t deserve it--he does.”

“And why don’t you deserve it, Frodo Baggins? Why don’t you?”

“I claimed It, Brendi. I let myself be taken by It.” Frodo’s voice was utterly reasonable.

The Brandybuck looked at his cousin with amazement. “You yourself have told me that you’ve been told by the highest authorities available that you had no hope at the last without someone like Gollum intervening and taking It from you as he did. You yourself told me that they said it required all three of you--you, Sam, and Gollum to rid Arda of that Ring. All three of you, Frodo Baggins. If Sam deserves to be a Lord of the Realm, then you do, too. Why do you keep feeling guilty?”

Frodo’s composure slipped, and Brendi saw just how hard it was for Frodo to keep up the mask of competence he wore. “Because I still want It, Brendi. I hate It. I loathe It. I detest It for what It did--did to me, to Bilbo, to Gollum, to Isildur, to Déagol, to Saruman and through him and his folk to Rohan and the Shire. I hate It, and I’m still so empty--so empty where It used to dwell, inside me.”

Brendilac looked at Frodo with growing compassion. He reached for Frodo’s hand once more, but Frodo wouldn’t let him even take it. Finally he settled for rising and placing his own hand on Frodo’s shoulder. He could see clearly how tired Frodo was. Finally Frodo looked away, tried to shake Brendi’s hand off his shoulder, but the lawyer wouldn’t pull away. At last Brendi said softly, “You think you’re dying, don’t you?”

The Baggins seated before him was beginning to shiver. “I suspect I am,” he whispered. “I’m--I’m not certain, but I suspect I am. I can’t go on losing weight forever, or continuing to get weaker.” He looked up into Brendi’s eyes again. “It has to end sometime, Brendi.”

Brendi gave a deep sigh as he finally settled again on the sofa facing his cousin. “Why Sam, and not your cousins, then?”

Frodo looked down as he gave a small shrug. “You were at the meeting at Daisy and Griffo’s, and again at the Council Hole in Michel Delving. You heard Griffo affirm what Daisy had said--that they are planning on naming Fosco and Forsythia as their heirs--and as their half sister, Daisy is far closer to them than I am. Plus they have Drogo and Emerald’s hole and property as well as Lilac and Emro’s portion of the rights to the Gravelly property as well as their father’s farm share. They don’t need Bag End, too. They’ve never lived here--never even visited here. I wept after I awoke in Ithilien that as I’d sold Bag End I couldn’t even give Sam the gardens here to work; when Lobelia gave me the deed again I swore to myself that not just the gardens but the whole property would be his. Oh, I can’t make him family head for the Bagginses--that’s for Fosco to assume after me, after all. But I can make him Master of Bag End, give him the property he deserves here in the Shire, get him the recognition he deserves. He’ll be the next Mayor, you see, but not if he has no property. True, he could buy property now--a farm or smial somewhere in the Shire--but he deserves to remain here, here in Hobbiton where he was born and in Bag End where he has worked all his life. Plus, there are two who have made this home for me--Bilbo and Sam. He loves Bag End as much as I do, and as much as Bilbo ever did. He will see it loved into the future, and fill it with the family it deserves.”

“How could he purchase property, Frodo?”

Frodo laughed. “You don’t know, do you? Oh, our Lord Samwise son of Hamfast, the Brave and Faithful, is actually quite fabulously rich. We both are, you know. Aragorn saw to it when we were ennobled, you see.”

Brendi listened to the story of how the King had decided to endow these two new Lords with some of his own properties, as well as some of other landholders who’d died in the war leaving no close heirs, with growing appreciation for the cleverness and humor and compassion the Man displayed. “Sam sent off his ring to Gondor last year in November with our Yule gifts to Aragorn and Arwen, asking Aragorn to draw some of the funds from the bankers who administer our fortunes there. Gimli brought it all back to him, the gold and his ring again. He used it to pay for the wedding, and to have this suit made for me and two others, now I’m too thin to wear my older suits, not even the one the Lady Arwen made for me. He admitted to me that he, Merry, and Pippin had planned to bring the weight of Mayor, Master and Thain down on Lotho, force him to sell Bag End back to them to give as a gift to me again--before we knew what he and Saruman had done, of course.

“I’m almost completely empty, and once I finish writing the book for Bilbo I’ll have nothing left to remain here for--not that Bilbo will ever read it, of course.”

“Why not?”

Frodo took his small ring of keys out of the pocket of his jacket, unlocked the drawer to the desk, searched through the papers stored there for a few minutes, and at last took out a sheet of parchment and handed it across. Brendi read it carefully, then looked up. “Bilbo is--is dying himself, then.”

Reluctantly Frodo nodded, took the letter sent him by Lord Elrond and returned it to the drawer, locked it again, his eyes remaining focused on the brass drawer pull. “I don’t know if I’ll even survive Bilbo at this point, Brendi. After my parents died he was the only one who let me do things, who didn’t try to keep me all wrapped in wool batting. He always loved me as I was, when I was his happy little Frodo, when I was his bewildered young orphan cousin, when I was the rebellious teen out to prove my cleverness by stealing from the farms in the Marish, when I was the meek tweenager who’d been reminded that people don’t love thieves, when I was his almost grown lad come here to live with him. No matter how much I love Sam, Merry, Pippin, Rosie and Elanor, not to mention Freddy, Ferdi, Folco, Bard, you, Sara and Esme, Pal and Lanti--still, Bilbo is the last of my family--my own, personal family. I still love him so much, Brendi, and I don’t see how I could ever live past him.”

Brendi nodded. Finally he said, “You said that the title you bear is to be inherited by your heirs. Do you leave that to Sam as well?”

Frodo turned to look at him again, smiled. “No. What does he need with two titles, do you think? No, I’ve already written my will for the outer world and have sent it to Lord Elrond. I think he’ll send it either to Lord Halladan or to Aragorn. I suppose it doesn’t matter really which receives it. No, Fosco will inherit my title in the outer world, and his children after him. I certainly hope he marries soon after he comes of age and has children.”

“I hope so, too, Frodo.”

In the distance they heard the front door open and Rosie’s voice as she entered the hole. “Now, Elanorellë, we’re home again at the last, we are. It’s time to see you changed, and then your feedin’ and your nap.”

Brendi looked toward the entrance. “I’ll go out and let you finish that plate then, cousin. You rest and take care of yourself. I’ll be back to see you with Oridon next week, you’ll remember.”

“Yes, you will. I’ll see you then, Brendi.”

Frodo rose and hugged him, and Brendi could feel how very thin he’d become. “You take care of yourself, Frodo,” he repeated, then turned and left the room, greeted Rosie and Elanor as he went down the hall, smiled at the beautiful bairn’s curious stare, and exited Bag End.

Sam wasn’t out front; Brendi turned back to once more follow the pathway through the gardens. When he at last reached the blue stepping stones up the Hill he followed his impulse and turned that way, climbed to the top, and saw Sam sitting there, there on what remained of the cut-off stump of the old oak, leaning forward, his legs spread, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped between them. He was looking down the Hill, looking out over the Shire as Frodo had done when Brendi had met with him up here the preceding summer. His face was quiet, the grief there but not overwhelming. Beside him on the stump sat his pipe and striker and leather wallet for leaf.

“Hello, Sam.”

Sam didn’t appear surprised, merely turned his head to acknowledge him and nodded.

“Well, he told me.”

“He admitted it to you, did he?”

Brendi nodded, and came around to drop to sit crosslegged looking up at the gardener. “You’re right,” he said. “He has to be the most stubborn Baggins in the whole history of the breed.”

Sam surprised both of them by giving a snort of laughter, although Brendi could see a tear in his eye. “He is that. Had he eaten?”

“Some, but not much when I left.”

“We’ll wait a bit longer then afore we give him another plate.” Sam turned to look off into the distance again.

After a time of silence Brendi commented, “He loves you deeply, you know.”

Sam nodded. “I know. Doesn’t appear to keep ’im from tryin’ to protect me from just how bad as he feels, though.”

Brendi smiled. “And in the end he refuses to see he’s no better than Cousins Sara and Esme trying to protect everyone they feel might be vulnerable.”

Sam gave him an evaluative look, then slowly nodded his agreement. “Learned it from them, did he?”

Brendi shrugged an eyebrow. “Apparently. I wish he’d courted Narcissa Boffin as we’ve all urged him to do.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Sam said dismissively. “Wouldn’t dream of leavin’ someone bereft afore she was used to bein’ his wife. Oh, I know he’s afraid as he won’t live that long. I don’t have to listen at the windows to hear that. You can see it in his eyes.”

Brendi’s attention was caught by what Sam had said. “Do you listen at the windows?”

Sam looked slightly uncomfortable and very defiant. “Well, I’ll admit as I have at times, although not lately. Not today. No, after you went to him I came up here, to think.”

Brendi nodded again, able to accept that. He turned himself to look off down the Hill at the view Frodo had loved since he came here as Bilbo’s heir. Then he felt Sam place his hand on his shoulder. He looked up into the younger Hobbit’s eyes. “Thank you for standin’ by him, Mr. Brendilac, sir. Thank you.”

“We’ve known each other since we were little lads, you know, Sam.”

They smiled, and at last Sam rose and turned to descend the Hill. He paused briefly. “You stay up here as long as you need, sir. You’re always welcome up here, you know.” He turned, standing tall, responsibly, as he went down the blue stone steps.

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